Early Monday morning, some 20 children sat at computers at Mesa Arts Academy, the room buzzing with voices.
The children appeared to be talking to themselves.
But at second glance, the students were responding to their computers, reading stories out loud about red dogs and circus clowns.
The west Mesa charter school is one of about 130 schools in Arizona providing students with special reading and math help through a program that is becoming increasingly popular in the state.
Principal Sue Douglas says the program, called response to intervention, is helping her students make tremendous academic gains and steering children away from being mislabeled as learning disabled.
Nationally, about 40 percent of students who were diagnosed as learning disabled actually just needed a different kind of instruction.
Since the state started training educators in the program three years ago, schools that have faithfully followed its plan have cut their referrals to special education roughly in half, said Dolores Ratcliff, a project coordinator at the Arizona Department of Education.
Now, most East Valley districts have at least one or two schools trying out the program. Some, like the Gilbert Unified School District, have implemented it in many of their schools.
The program screens students differently, looking for cues starting in kindergarten or earlier, that they are behind their peers in reading and math.
Those children are then targeted with various levels of academic help, depending on their needs, including tutoring, small group remediation or computer-based learning.
At the Mesa Arts Academy, roughly 35 children get individualized help each day, said Miranda Eckenrod, who runs the intervention program. Teachers regularly chart the progress of each student. Those students who are still struggling - often 3 to 5 percent of a class - will move up to a higher level of intervention, requiring at least an hour of extra instruction each day.
"Some will have those interventions for a year and it will close the gap between their scores and where they should be," Douglas said. "Those are the kids that are usually diagnosed into special-education programs who really shouldn't be there."
Eventually, only those children who seem to show no response to the interventions are deemed in need of special-education services.
This process differs greatly from how other schools in the state identify children with learning disabilities, Ratcliff said.
Traditionally, children have been tested by comparing their IQs and their academic performance.
But some critics say that is not the best way to test for learning disabilities and it grabs too many kids. It's one of the reasons schools districts are taking up the new intervention program.
"It was very difficult in kindergarten and first grade to identify those students, because it's hard to give an IQ test in kindergarten," said Nancy Dudenhoefer, spokeswoman for the Kyrene Elementary School District, which piloted the intervention program this year at six schools and plans to expand it next year.
Mislabeling children into special-education programs can have long-lasting effects, in part because it can be difficult for them to work their way back into mainstream classrooms.
"Nationally, we have just about a 7 percent rate of returning (to mainstream classrooms), so that's pretty dismal," Ratcliff said. "Even though they may have been misidentified, they start to lose access to general education curriculum, they get more and more behind."
The problem has racial implications, too. Research has shown a disproportionate number of minority children, especially black and American Indian children, are put in special-education courses.
The program helps students who do not have learning disabilities, too, by getting them up to grade level, Douglas said. Also, it gives teachers better information about what students aren't grasping - for example, phonics or math calculations.
Douglas said she believes the program helped her students master math.
Last year, 100 percent of Mesa Arts Academy eighth-graders passed the math section of the Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards. And a higher percentage of her school's eighth-graders exceeded the state's math standards than at any other school in the state.
"If our eighth-grade teachers had to teach math facts, they wouldn't have time to teach algebra," Douglas said. "The intervention these kids are having earlier pays off. ... I mean, it works."