Four years ago, Austin’s Lanier High School was in danger of having the Texas Education Agency declare the school academically “unacceptable.” “We were teetering,” reported former principal Edmund Oropez.
Rather than wring their hands, Oropez and his staff began the search for a professional development program that the whole school could commit to, one that would address the needs of a comprehensive high school where about 80 percent of students were economically disadvantaged and 35 percent were English language learners.
The program offered by QTEL (Quality Teaching for English Learners) appealed to the Lanier staff because all students, not only those learning English, benefit from the QTEL focus on high expectations, academic rigor, and the pedagogical supports that boost student engagement.
The school has extended its original three-year collaboration with QTEL based on solid increases in students’ academic achievement, with English language learners making the largest gains.
Based on the success of Lanier students, the Austin district has recently asked QTEL to work with the faculty at Reagan High School as well. Following the first year of collaboration between Reagan faculty and QTEL, scores at Reagan are up for all students — English language learners and the school as a whole.
While the initial Reagan scores are certainly heartening, sustained growth over time, as evident at Lanier, is the goal of QTEL professional development. Katherine Ryan, who was an assistant principal when QTEL first came to Lanier, is now the school’s principal and a champion of the QTEL partnership. “The changes at Lanier,” she says, “have been phenomenal. Some happened very quickly, such as teachers implementing tasks learned from QTEL into daily lessons. We also began to hear teachers talking about ‘scaffolding’ lessons almost immediately. And lessons more consistently engaged students in academic discussions with one another.
“Other changes have happened over a period of time,” Ryan notes,” and these offer the most promise. Teachers have become more purposeful in how they plan lessons, how they plan for scaffolding, and how they plan for rigor and quality interactions. Some of our teachers who have received additional training and support from QTEL staff are becoming coaches to help other teachers plan and implement quality lessons.
“My favorite piece of anecdotal evidence about the success of the QTEL collaboration comes from a team of visitors to one of our open houses. They were shocked at how engaged our students were with the content being presented. Students were working in small groups and the visitors wanted to know the ‘secret’ of getting students in groups to really talk about the material.
“There is no ‘secret,’ of course. It’s been steady, hard work learning how to design lessons that actually engage students and that include the scaffolding that helps them all feel and actually be successful. Imagine the power we are able to give our English learners, for example, when they see the improvement they are making.”