Carol Sadler changed way district and state support struggling students

Longtime school psychologist and administrator Carol Sadler helped make Tigard-Tualatin School district famous with her work with struggling students. Sadler died last month, a memorial service is planned for Sunday in King City.Most people may not know the name Carol Sadler. But for students in the Tigard-Tualatin School District, she changed the way staff members treat them.

Sadler, who died Sept. 29 of lung cancer at the age of 66, was one of the most important faces in the district for more than 20 years, and helped bring Tigard-Tualatin to the national spotlight for its work with struggling students.

The public is invited to a memorial service at 2 p.m. on Sunday at the King City Civic Association, 15245 S.W. 116th Ave.

Sadler was responsible for starting several of the district’s programs working with struggling students, including its Response to Intervention system and Effective Behavioral Instructional Support.

Those programs might not be well-known to outsiders, but they put Tigard-Tualatin on the map within education circles and have influenced the way the state works with students, said district spokeswoman Susan Stark Haydon.

Sadler came to the district in 1983 as a school psychologist and later worked her way up to director of assessment.

Under Sadler’s leadership, Tigard-Tualatin became one of the first school districts in Oregon to start the Effective Behavioral Instructional Support program in 1997. EBIS teaches students through positive reinforcement, rather than negative consequences.

“We found that the kids were pleasantly surprised to receive acknowledgement for ‘doing the right thing,’” Sadler wrote in the Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions in 2000.

Sally Helton, who runs the district’s EBIS program today, said the program also affected the way the district works with struggling students.

Along with positive reinforcement, schools began to track students’ behavior, and Sadler noticed a correlation between students with multiple referrals to the principal’s office and students who were having difficulty learning to read, Helton said.

Sadler set up a system to work with these struggling students, which led to a four-year grant from the U.S. Department of Education to implement a more rigorous program in 2001.

“Today, (EBIS) is a very successful system because of her,” Helton said. “Carol got that going.”

Through Sadler’s program, the district screens its students several times a year to see who is having a tough time with reading.

The lowest 20 percent receive special intervention to get them back on track, known as Response to Intervention, or RTI.

Helton said 97 percent of struggling students don’t have a learning disability, they just have trouble connecting to the material. But too often in the past, students who failed to keep up were thrown into special education classrooms.

“Before (RTI), we gave them an IQ test and an achievement test, and if the difference was greater than 20 points, we said they had a disability,” Helton said.

That program worked alright for older students, but wasn’t capable of identifying younger students, Helton said, so students who did have a disability would struggle for years before they could get help.

“We would say, ‘Let’s leave them for a few years before we can get the data we need,’” Helton said.

RTI changed that. Sadler’s tests helped identify students as young as kindergartners, and got them help early in their education.

The program caught on and has become an often-cited example of Tigard-Tualatin’s success, bringing accolades from the head of the Oregon Department of Education, and national recognition.

Tigard-Tualatin helped write guidelines for the state. In 2005, the district set up the Oregon Response to Intervention team, which trains school districts across the state in identifying and supporting students before they slip through the cracks.

Sadler also took regular trips to Washington, D.C., to work with the U.S. Department of Education to bring EBIS and RTI to more educators.

Despite her accomplishments, Sadler stayed out of the spotlight, Stark Haydon said.

“For someone who had such a powerful impact on our schools, Carol was a low-key leader whose intelligence, dry sense of humor and friendship have been missed since the day she retired in 2006,” she said.

But even today, Stark Haydon said, it’s easy to feel Sadler’s impact on the schools.

“If Carol hadn’t been here, this district would look drastically different. No question,” Helton said. “When you look at our data, the population has changed. It’s more diverse now than ever, and we will continue to get more diverse. Students of color often don’t come in at the same level (as white students), and there is a gap. If we don’t do something to help raise that achievement gap, any district would struggle to have kids passing. We are finding them early and helping those kids.”

Contributions in Sadler’s memory may be made to Patient Navigator Fund, OMCC, 844 N. Fifth Ave., Sequim, Wash., 98382.

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