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K-2 Students Boost Literacy Scores Thanks to “High-Dosage” Tutoring

TSI program expanded from 14 to 28 schools

At Dallas F. Nicholas, Sr. Elementary School, students in kindergarten through second grade are getting a new level of individualized attention for building literacy skills, thanks to trained interventionist tutors in their classroom. 

Students receive intensive tutoring — 30 minutes a day, every day — in small groups based on the foundational literacy skills they need most, such as initial sounds, blending, segmenting words, and encoding.

“I love the collaboration between my teachers and interventionists,” says Principal Danielle Adams. “They’re sharing data and finding the approach that works best for each student. And of course, the kids love the extra attention. Most importantly, they’re making gains.” 

This is what the late Dr. Robert Slavin meant by the term “high-dosage tutoring.” Before he passed away last year, the renowned education researcher and Johns Hopkins University professor presented data that showed tailored, small-group interventions can make a big difference in helping students catch up to grade-level expectations. His findings are detailed In the Abell Foundation report, “Literacy Tutoring for Baltimore: What we know, where we are, and how to move forward.” City Schools is implementing this approach through the pilot of what has been named the Transitional Supplemental Instruction program (TSI). 

Even before the pandemic, City Schools was working with Dr. Slavin to take these ideas from academia to the classroom — becoming a nationwide innovator in combining high-dosage tutoring with the “Response to Intervention” framework, which emphasizes early identification and support of students with learning and behavioral needs. In addition to bolstering academic achievement, this approach can also help better identify (and prevent misidentification of) students with special needs. 

Starting with 14 schools in 2020 and expanding to 28 schools this year, TSI employs 83 City Schools-trained interventionists to lead the tutoring groups. 

And despite the disruptions of the last two years, this initiative is showing results. Students receiving this intervention have improved their literacy skills at a faster rate — three percentage points higher than their peers — as measured by the DIBELS8 standardized test. 

“We believe that focusing TSI efforts on K-2 literary instruction offers the opportunity to make a meaningful impact on student achievement for years to come,” says Jalima Alicea, City Schools’ Director of Specialized Learning. “We like to say that in grades K-2, you’re learning to read. But starting in 3rd grade, you’re reading to learn. It’s crucial to have those foundational skills by then.”

Despite the TSI program being in its early stages, the educational community is taking an interest in City Schools’ efforts. On January 18, Ms. Alicea and her team presented the program model at the Council for Exceptional Children Conference, where attendees pressed them for tips and advice on how they might implement similar programs at their schools. 

“We’re pioneering a lot of this work, utilizing the very latest research as our guide,” says Educational Specialist Safonya Ray. “We’re still in the process of standardizing data collection and making adjustments as necessary. It’s crucial that we develop a method that is scalable and replicable beyond 28 schools, ideally across the entire district.”

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