I began this school year straight out of graduate school, well-educated in Response to Intervention theories and practices, eager to incorporate at-risk work into my schedule. It’s effective, it’s important, and, more importantly, as of July 2012, it’s legally mandated in the NYC school system. I was particularly excited when I learned that, as I was working in a newly-established school, my schedule would not be immediately overloaded. After calculating my caseload, I realized I’d have a few free periods throughout the week, a myth in the New York City school system, where so many SLPs are faced with impossible caseloads of 50-60 students, working through preparatory periods and lunch and even that’s not enough to accommodate all the mandates.

This is why we now have RTI—to bridge the achievement gap, prevent overloading and over-referral of culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) children or children from low socioeconomic status (SES) homes in the future. Eliminate the false positives, ensure only those children who truly need it are enrolled in special education, give temporary support to otherwise struggling students. It works, it makes sense, I was excited.

I thought my supervisor would be as well.

“Alright, organize your schedule and see how many days free you have, we’ll send you to the school down the block to pick up the overflow.”

…what? What about RTI? What about all the at-risk students?

My school is K-2, 90% ELLs—70% Mandarin-speaking, 20% Spanish-speaking, 10% other. I am one of the few ELL- or bilingually-certified educators in the school, one of the even fewer Spanish speakers, and the only speech-language pathologist. I wanted to use what I had to help. So, I turned to research. I brought up several position papers, including the ASHA position paper on school-based SLPs in RTI. I was prepared to fight for my position. I have the training, I know the strategies, and further, I had the room in my schedule to accommodate intensive small groups.

I can see why my supervisor would be resistant to this, though. Even though RTI is now standard practice, budgeting has not caught up with the law. If I spend 70% of my week providing legally-mandated speech services to students with IEPs, and 30% of my week providing at-risk intervention, it would appear on any report that I’m only working at 70% capacity. There’s currently no documentation system for students seen at-risk apart from personal or school-wide data collection; this doesn’t make it to the district. According to the law, 15% of a school’s special education budget may be dedicated to implementing RTI. To me, this meant I could spend 15% of my time providing at-risk services problem-free. I don’t know that the DOE would feel the same, however.

Apart from financial budgeting, there’s time management to consider. Though RTI was implemented to prevent over-referral to special education, what will it do for those students already referred? We’re almost at an impasse; we have to provide services to these struggling students to stop them from falling down the special education shaft, but we also have to continue providing services to those students already in the shaft to eventually (read: soon) pull them out. If we ignore them, they’ll be stuck forever. But this means that for right now, caseloads, already too large before, have doubled. And no one, at least in my tiny world, is sure how to handle it.

In the end, my supervisor and I reached a compromise: I would go to the school around the corner one morning per week to help with the overflow, and I would be able to stay at my school for the remainder “in anticipation of new referrals.” I was pleased, and have been servicing at-risk students since. I think it’s a step in the right direction, but we’ll see what happens as time goes on. In the meantime, I’ll keep up with the research and keep muscling through.