So Every Child Is Served: District Begins Intensive Multi-Tiered Systems of Support Program
This school year, Artondria Bentley, Ed.D., UCHS Class of 1988, joined The School District of University City as the Director of Special Programs in Support of MTSS, a new executive leadership position intended to better personalize rigorous, modern and relevant learning for all students within the District.
Bentley was previously the Special School District (SSD) of St. Louis County’s partner director for U. City Schools, overseeing more than 80 SSD staff members within our District. In her new role, she continues similar work, but with a more comprehensive view of the District’s student population to ensure that all students, regardless of whether they are identified as needing SSD services or not, are given the targeted, individual support to thrive as academic learners.
In her role, she oversees student-centered social-emotional and academic teams to ensure comprehensive systems are in place so no students fall through the cracks and all students succeed. In this role, she further works closely with Wendy Gilliam, the District’s new SSD partner director. We sat down with Bentley to further discuss her new role and what it means for District students.
When we say multi-tiered, what exactly does that mean? How is it different from what our students might be receiving now?
MTSS is an acronym for Multi-Tiered Systems of Support. MTSS places emphasis on the whole child within a system that is proactive, timely, focused and data driven. This universal approach uses very current student information, including data and observation, to measure a student’s alignment and progress within the District’s core curriculum. This deep dive into each student identifies specific needs and supports that can help springboard them to success. This approach takes care of all students and is a shift from identifying specific students for “special education” to addressing the needs of every child. MTSS embraces and thrives when the entire school community plays a part in the system to produce the well-deserved, best outcomes for all students.
We often talk about preventing students from falling through the cracks by not getting the support they need. But at the same time, we worry about inaccurately labeling students. How does MTSS address both of these issues?
We are building a universal support structure where students are not required to experience academic failure before getting access to the support they need when they need it. Tiered systems of support are intended to support all students, including students who receive special education services. Multi-tiered support does not label a student, but identifies the appropriate level of support needed at any given time based on their individual needs. This support is in addition to, not instead of, their grade level instruction. Therefore, students can continue to make academic progress because the skills that have been mastered are maintained. The goal of MTSS is to provide support alongside the general education curriculum to avoid academic disruptions to regular education.
“We are building a universal support structure where students are not required to experience academic failure before getting access to the support they need when they need it. ”
-- Artondria Bentley, Ed.D.
Director of Special Programs in Support of MTSS
How has your previous work with the Special School District (SSD) of St. Louis County and your experience in U. City Schools prepared you for this new role?
This is my 21st year in education, and helping students reach their full potential is very important to me. I became a special educator because I wanted to collaborate and advocate for a culturally rich, rigorous and meaningful education where all students are provided their right to a free, appropriate public education. My experience as an SSD administrator encompassed systems work across disciplines, both academic and services, and includes integrated approaches that support the whole child. Specifically, The School District of University City and Special School District collaborate to bring skills, training, resources and insightful perspectives together to strengthen teaching and learning opportunities for our students in the District. Being able to continue the partnership with special educators is essential to this work. All students are vibrant, brilliant and ready to demonstrate and engage in high level learning – even when more academic, social and emotional support may be needed. Both districts have a mission and vision that makes our students the center of everything we do, so that will always lend itself to the best outcome for students and will lay the foundation to tap the genius that’s inside of all of our students.
What’s at stake here?
Too many times Black students and students identified as “low-income” experience inequities consistently and systematically in public education. When gaps in access are not spanned, students can unfairly be subjected to poor learning outcomes, which closes the door prematurely to well-deserved, meaningful and postsecondary outcomes. Removing barriers for all students to acquire an education rooted in high expectations, strong academic curriculum, and a safe and supportive environment is the turning point so students can see themselves as brilliant learners. The District is embracing an opportunity to collaborate with the Special School District of St. Louis County to design a framework that is responsive and child-centered and embeds equitable practices and resources for all students. This foundation allows all students to learn in a supportive and rigorous environment so students can focus and feel accepted and supported. When students receive supports aimed at their individual needs and are active participants in their own learning, this fuels learning and helps to close achievement and access gaps.
Can you share with us a specific student success story regarding MTSS?
Last year, these practices were implemented at two elementary schools in the District. Both schools experienced positive student growth in a short time span. The buildings used multiple data points to determine the appropriate level of support to provide to individual students to meet their immediate needs. These students responded to support positively and showed academic and social gains, allowing the students to move fluidly between tiered support. This is a testament to the success of appropriate and timely supports provided to students.
What is your favorite U. City memory from your student days? And what about your U. City student experience sparked you to go into education?
I have so many great U. City memories to choose from, but my favorites were being involved in school clubs. I was a member of the student government association and was a captain of the pom-pom squad. These clubs were exciting and connected me not just to my school, but the community as well. As a member of student government, I experienced the wonderful opportunity of my first airplane ride to Washington, D.C., to actually hear and see the advocacy work for children by The Children’s Defense Fund in the nation’s capital. This trip to D.C. gave me my first real opportunity to witness the hard work it took to ensure protections for children across the United States and abroad. This organization emphasized policy changes that negatively impacted child poverty, inequitable education and children’s health. That was the moment, at age 17, that deepened my passion for advocacy work and started my education journey.