Transforming Student Support: 5 Crucial Lessons for MTSS Implementation

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Disoriented. Complicated. Collaborative. A work in progress. Do these words describe your district’s Multi-Tier System of Supports (MTSS) journey? Much of the audience who responded in the live chat during the edLeader Panel “Authoring Your MTSS Story: A Success Spotlight with Chicago Public Schools” described their district’s process like this, reflecting a common theme among many school districts nationwide.

Chicago Public Schools (CPS) partnered with Branching Minds to implement an MTSS more efficiently, streamlining efforts for practical use that can be managed in daily bite-sized tasks. This case study offers a blueprint for any size district nationwide, including the secrets to gaining buy-in so that all stakeholders value the work and embrace the process.

Toni Liza DeMello, District Manager of MTSS at Chicago Public Schools, points out, “Launching and implementing a strong MTSS framework in a school district is like authoring a compelling story; every student’s success becomes a pivotal chapter in the education narrative.”

Both DeMello and Dr. Eva Dundas, Chief Academic Officer at Branching Minds, emphasized the importance of taking a hard look at your process—or the one you’re starting—and revisiting how you talk about the effort. MTSS is more than just an intervention; it’s a systemwide effort that ultimately improves every student’s academic experience. The more closely aligned it is to core district values, the more likely it will be embraced.

From Theory to Practice: 5 Takeaways For MTSS Success 

1. Redefine and Reimagine

Change is difficult and often leads to resistance. In most districts, past initiatives created extra work, produced little results, and launched lots of skepticism. According to DeMello, MTSS was initially considered “RTI renamed” at CPS. Changing communication about MTSS was critical in separating it from past baggage and building new understanding.

“When you form an equity-based MTSS, it’s difficult for anyone to negate what you’re trying to implement,” she said. DeMello leaned on the experts—district teachers and specialists focused on equity—to build capacity and re-imagine an equity-based MTSS framework together. “We had to break free” and build a framework that can support everyone; make it all about academics, she explained.

2. One Is the Loneliest Number

Beginning by yourself or with one person is a good place to start, but you don’t want to live there. DeMello and Dundas agreed that it’s something seen across the country. Often, MTSS is referred to as a person or a small contingent. “That’s antithetical to what MTSS is because it’s a ‘system’ of support,” DeMello advised. The more connections, the broader the support system, the more impactful it can be for all stakeholders. When you have a team, more work gets done faster, and it leverages various talents and specialties people bring to the table.

3. Start Small

Consider what initiatives in your district would need systemwide support and begin there. When CPS reimagined its MTSS effort as one that supported equitable learning, it opened doors with key district contacts and departments with similar goals. CPS, like many districts today, was considering different SEL assessments and how to incorporate data in Tier 1 instruction and identify areas of need in Tiers 2 and 3. An MTSS framework to develop the whole child was a great place to start. CPS began by piloting the framework in 60 schools. At the end of the year, they saw improvements across all SEL competencies and students.

4. Identify Your Best Stakeholders and Expand

Overall CPS focused on five areas: Social and Emotional Learning, English Language Learners, Equity, Special Education, and Career Readiness. While each area had different departments in the district, Dundas advised smaller districts and schools to identify the persons or small departments that focus on these initiatives. Each needs systemwide support and would benefit from the MTSS framework.

DeMello strategically found ways MTSS data could support and improve each area, leaning on those within the school or department to build it together. For students learning English or multiple languages, “it was an opportunity to look at holistic data across student needs,” she said. CPS could look at academics, strengths, and cultural and linguistic factors, develop a comprehensive understanding of these students, and then use systematic data to determine what needs to be done for better support.

For student equity in most schools, “One common thing you see is having a good universal screener, but they’re not applying it equitably,” said DeMello. Nationwide, teachers use referrals or other processes to identify who needs additional support for Tier 2 or 3 levels. This leads to inequity. Instead, CPS applied the principles of universal assessment to identify support Tiers fairly.

A similar approach also worked for special education. “You can’t MTSS a child,” she said. Through an MTSS framework, CPS used systemwide data to create guidelines for differentiation and reduce unnecessary referrals. Lastly, for career readiness, CPS focused on early detection, identifying the early signs that might affect students’ abilities to graduate. Collecting data on course failure, behavior citations, suspension, and attendance can predict those students at risk. Like CPS, schools can then put in a support system to ensure more students graduate.

5. Recognize It’s a Journey, and You’re Building the Foundation

Dundas provided resources for building an MTSS from a systems infrastructure, gaining essential buy-in at the leadership and school levels. Like building a house, your MTSS framework can’t stand without a solid foundation. It’s imperative to provide schools with “something very concrete to support their implementation. You can’t just give them a bunch of stuff and say, go and implement,” she said. Schools will need the tools, resources, and support to implement. It will take time, but eventually will take hold.

At the end of the day, your efforts can make a difference. If it seems like a considerable challenge, remember the basics; you know what culturally responsive and relevant instruction and curricula look like, and now you can have a system to support it.

Learn more about this edWeb broadcast, Authoring Your MTSS Story: A Success Spotlight with Chicago Public Schools, sponsored by Branching Minds.

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Leadership protocols to increase engagement and buy-in for MTSS


Article by Suzanne Bell, based on this edLeader Panel