LAWRENCE — For decades, schools have been segregating students according to ability. Special ed students, English as a second language learners, gifted children and those with behavioral problems were all split into separate groups.
But a school reform program developed at the University of Kansas has shown that by breaking down those silos and bringing all students and school staff together, underperforming schools can dramatically improve test scores.
The Schoolwide Applications Model, known as SAM, has been put into practice in underperforming, often high-poverty school districts in Kansas, California and Washington, D.C. The program has raised scores and drawn rave reviews from school personnel as well as Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education.
Earlier this year, Duncan paid a visit to Ann Beers Elementary in Washington, D.C. The school implemented SAM, a program developed by Wayne Sailor, professor of special education and associate director of the Beach Center on disability at KU, and Blair Roger, an educational consultant from San Francisco. Duncan praised the school and program for its “extraordinary job at inclusion.”
“Their philosophy there is as profound as it is simple,” Duncan said. “They told me repeatedly that they’re preparing all their students for success in one society, not a general ed society and not a special ed one. That world simply doesn’t exist.”
SAM was built on research conducted at KU that helped individuals improve academic performance.
“The question for me was, ‘Can we take all of these things that work individually and export them in a school reform model in schools that are struggling?’” Sailor said.
The program was first implemented at White Church Elementary School in Kansas City, Kan. A school district with a large number of students living in poverty, White Church Elementary school also annually performed poorly on assessment tests. In 2005 after a few years with the SAM program, it was named the top performing elementary school in Kansas. SAM was then taken to the Ravenswood City School District in East Palo Alto, Calif. The district was the second lowest performing in the state and was in danger of takeover by the state. The district’s schools now exceed the state average in standardized testing, and special education referrals have dropped from 15 percent of students to nine percent. The state’s average is 10 percent.
“These systems in isolation don’t work very well,” Sailor said of separating students by ability. “They siphon off resources that could help all kids, and they don’t do a good job of helping the kids that they are funded for.”
The research team took the SAM system to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. After two years of helping several poverty-stricken schools improve, the group was asked to bring the program to Washington, D.C. It is now in place in 16 schools in the nation’s capital, and student performance has improved in each of the schools in which it has been introduced. The progress helped convince Duncan and Alexa Posny, assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services, and former commissioner of education for Kansas, to visit.
The program begins with Sailor’s team training teachers and staff in inclusion of all students, sharing resources and intervening in what are often thought of as “problem behaviors.” After a few years, the KU team steps away and the schools continue using the program in a completely self-sustaining matter. SAM is based on the idea of Response to Intervention.
“Instead of locating the problem in the kid and removing the child, let’s ask, ‘What’s the breakdown of the child’s problem with the instruction’ and then map a solution,” Sailor said.
Teachers in SAM schools are trained in positive intervention and support, and the percentage of office referrals has dropped to nearly zero where implemented. The program also reaches out to the community, engaging parents and educating them on the program and its mission.
Response to intervention works with a three-tier system to include all students, while providing more intense instruction to those who need it without segregating them from their peers. While special education still exists in SAM schools for students with significant educational challenges, referrals have dropped, and not at the expense of students.
As the research team completes its work in D.C., it is now looking to take the program to school districts in East St. Louis and other locations in Illinois. Sailor said he also hopes to implement it in largely poor, rural districts.
“The research has shown that if you engage them, poor students can learn and perform as well as any of their peers,” Sailor said.
More information about SAM and schools using it is available at www.samschools.org.