When her son Dylan was just 6 years old, Kristen Wahlmeier noticed that he had to be bribed to read: A surfing trip here or a pair of new shoes there before he'd pick up a book.
Worried as she watched him struggle, a gnawing fear crept into her stomach: Her only son, with big blue eyes and the jones for Star Wars, might be headed for a special education classroom.
Instead, teachers at his suburban Portland school intervened immediately, putting him into extra reading and vocabulary tutoring every day before school. It paid off.
Now, officials in districts across the country are rapidly adopting similar early intervention programs, hoping that steering a child away from expensive special education classes later will pay off for them, too, in cost savings.
The adoption of these programs comes at a time when districts have been trying to also cut down "overidentification" — too many poor and minority kids being shunted off to special education who don't need to be there.
Not everyone is so pleased about the early help, known as "response to intervention" or RTI.
Critics fear delays
Some parents worry that children with learning disabilities will have to wait too long to get the intensive help they need. Academics and administrators fear the trend is taking off too quickly, without enough research to back up its surge.
"RTI is a runaway train — it's an explosion right now in the entire field of education," said Wayne Sailor, a professor of special education at the University of Kansas.
Traditionally, children haven't been identified for special education until third or fourth grade. They end up costing roughly twice as much, or about $12,000 a year, to educate an average student, including about $11 billion in federal dollars every year.
But researchers, including some influential with federal education officials, have long argued that students were getting stuck in special education not because of biological disabilities, but because of environmental factors.
They say their parents may have not read to them enough or allowed the children to stay home from school too often.
RTI was launched as a response, finding a foothold nearly a decade ago in school districts in Oregon and Iowa.
The idea is to screen children as early as kindergarten for any sign that they are falling behind their peers in basic subjects, like reading and math. Teachers keep careful records, and children like Dylan get intensive extra instruction.
The tutoring intensifies if there's no improvement. If problems persist, they go into traditional special education.
Virginia sees drop in special ed numbers
In Virginia, special education numbers statewide dipped by about 4,000 students this year, which officials attribute at least partly to increasing use of early interventions.
And in Oklahoma, where 15 school districts are piloting the program, some schools reported a 50 percent decrease in the number of special education referrals between 2006 and 2007.
The Bush administration is backing RTI, allowing districts to spend up to 15 percent of the money they receive for special education on the program, and setting aside $14 million in federal dollars to help states implement it.
Believers swear by the method.
Brad McDuffee, principal of Highland Park Elementary School in San Bernardino, Calif., said that in the three years that RTI has been in place at his school, the special education population has been cut in half.
It's now just seven percent, about half of the roughly 13 percent national average, even though about 87 percent of his students come from poorer families.
Hawaii decided to begin using RTI after the only elementary school on the island of Lanai was routinely putting more than 20 percent of students into special education, said Debbie Farmer, who coordinates special education for the state.
"Identifying kids that need not be identified is the worst thing," Farmer said.
Another education fad?
She said she's encountered some resistance as Hawaii phases in the new program, from teachers who are suspicious that the program is just another education fad and from parents who worry that their children won't get the help they need.
Pat Lillie, a North Carolina mother whose sons were both in special education programs, said parents are worried about all the questions they say have gone unanswered, as school districts have rushed to adopt RTI.
"There really are no guidelines for how long a child can remain in RTI before they are moved into evaluation, but we hear from some parents that it can take a long, long time," said Lillie, who sits on the board of the Learning Disabilities Association of America.
It will take the average school about three years to get the early intervention system in place, Sailor said, including intensive training for classroom teachers who need to learn how to evaluate and identify students who need help.
And in the end, he said, it might not save schools much money, since they'll be spending more on early interventions, even if fewer children wind up in special education down the line.
For the Wahlmeiers, at least, the program worked.
"Before, he was definitely avoiding reading; he'd do anything to get out of it," Kristen Wahlmeier said. "Now, in the evenings, he'll just pick up a book."