paulPaul R. Hanson, Science Teacher and Department Coordinator, Liberty High School, Hillsboro, Oregon


“A school with high academic optimism is a collectivity in which the faculty believes it can make a difference, that students can learn, and that high academic performance can be achieved.”

 – Hoy, Tarter, & Hoy, 2006

Long-term English learners at Liberty High School have experienced tremendous academic growth over the past four years. It hasn’t been easy, but thanks to a few pivotal changes, our school has turned a corner in the achievement – and confidence level – of English learners. 

In 2010-11, Liberty’s long-term English learners (LTELs) were doing the bare minimum amount of coursework they needed to graduate. Very few risked taking advanced social studies or language arts, and most took the minimum number of science and math classes. There was a glaring difference between the demographics of our advanced classes and of our school as a whole. 

The vast majority of Liberty’s LTELs are Hispanic. Four years ago, these students were falling into a huge opportunity gap: Hispanic enrollment was less than 20% of total course enrollment in advanced courses across the curriculum. Liberty’s staff wanted to close that gap and change the trajectory for LTELs. Our target was to increase Hispanic enrollment in advanced courses to 40%, to be reflective of our school demographics.   

hanson chart1  hanson chart2 

Since 2011, we’ve made significant changes that are leading to impressive growth in access and achievement for LTELs. The graphs above tell the story: we’re seeing a trend of steady growth in Hispanic enrollment in all advanced courses, from science to language arts. For instance, in 2014-15, these students’ enrollment in AP European History is forecasted to be 47.22% – a big step up from 10.52% four years ago. Enrollment in our Portland State University Senior Inquiry program, a series of interdisciplinary college-level courses, is projected to be almost 50% Hispanic next year.

The improvements for LTELs correspond with increasing numbers of students choosing to do the advanced/honors work in foundational courses. In 2010-11, only 17 students enrolled in AP Biology; that number jumped to 60 in 2011-12 and then to 120 in 2013-14. We’ve also had a substantial decrease in failure rates: the freshman failure rate dropped from 15% in 2009-10 to 6.2% the next year, and to less than 5% two years later. We’ve also seen a significant increase in students electing to take science courses beyond those required for graduation. Rather than avoid science as they did before, many students are now taking two science classes in one year. 

 Three key factors have made these improvements possible: 

1. Liberty High School staff believes that we have the ability to improve student achievement.

We’ve created a culture of academic optimism – a shift in how teachers view students and how students view themselves as able to be successful with appropriate scaffolding. The school’s leadership is instilled with a value of success for all students, and the entire staff shares the belief that we want to engage and challenge all of our learners. 

2. Our staff wants equity for all students. 

We don’t want AP classrooms and at-level classrooms to look like two entirely different schools. Previously, we had a traditional tracking system, particularly in the sciences, which resulted in at-level courses turning into remedial courses. We eliminated many of the prerequisites and the tracking, and opened up access to the advanced curriculum. We embedded honors activities within mixed-ability classes so students could opt in to the advanced options. This has created a climate where LTELs feel supported and safe to take the risk to do honors level work.

3. Liberty prioritizes targeted professional development for our staff. 

We had the vision and the will, but we needed time and training to develop the skills necessary to implement our vision. Our school adopted new approaches to teaching, including E.L. Achieve’s Constructing Meaning, to help us close our achievement gaps. In 2011, Liberty’s core freshman teachers were trained in Constructing Meaning (CM) to build their ability to make content comprehensible for all learners, especially English language learners. 

CM has been very much a part of creating success for our LTELs. We now have the resources to accelerate our instruction. While we were already providing students with differentiation and opportunities for higher levels of thinking, we needed additional support to know how to include the language instruction that was necessary for them to express the complexity of their thinking. Supporting the development of expressive language has opened many doors for students to engage and achieve. 

Our staff’s ongoing professional development includes weekly academic seminars to collaborate in developing our academic skills and making content more accessible to more students, as well as peer observations to share feedback and problem-solving strategies. We focus on engagement strategies to capitalize and build upon students’ background knowledge in order to support rigorous and culturally relevant teaching.

Thanks to academic optimism, a belief in equity, and targeted professional development, Liberty’s failure rates have dropped while AP numbers have soared and now reflect the cultural and linguistic demographics of our school. 

But beyond changing the data, we’ve also experienced a paradigm shift in the academic climate, and students have responded phenomenally. Our LTELs have more opportunities for success because they feel safe to take on a challenge. It is exciting to see LTELs who used to say, “I don’t know if I can do it,” now flocking to advanced classes. They are no longer quiet, passive kids sitting on the side, not turning in assignments. They see themselves as being successful and capable. And, there is a greater sense of buy-in and inclusion throughout our whole school community.

This blog was previously published with the title, “Path to Success: Improving equitable access and academic rigor for long-term English learners.”