By RACHEL COLEMAN
• Leader & Times
The “best schools” list compiled by the magazine “U.S. News & World Report” is famous for fueling competition between colleges nationwide. Harvard, Princeton and Yale routinely swap spots in the top three, and public colleges and universities vie for regional rankings.
Now Liberal High School has earned a spot in the high school category of the prestigious list. LHS ranked seventh among the state’s 369 high schools, and was among the top 10 percent nationwide, out of more than 21,000 public high schools evaluated by U.S. News.
“This is a great honor,” said LHS Principal Keith Adams. “It’s always nice to be recognized for the positive things going on in our school.” The ranking, he noted, “is well deserved and representative of the amazing students and staff who have worked hard to meet academic goals.”
Superintendent of schools Lance Stout agreed. He said the honor is especially sweet given the fact that, five years ago, LHS was in danger of being listed as a failing school by federal standards.
“When we were bottoming out, we realized, ‘We’re going to have to do something different,’” he recalled. “We did a lot of research and saw that what we needed was not 100 different initiatives, but three or four pillars that would turn things around.”
Among the tools the district chose were Literacy First to emphasize the critical importance of reading mastery; the AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) program that intentionally positions students to move on to college; and Capturing Kids Hearts, a behavior-modification method designed to create a cooperative learning environment.
The high school also opted to increase its Advanced Placement (AP) class offerings.
“Over the past decade, there has been an increase in the number of AP courses from two to 12,” said USD 480 board member Dan Diepenbrock, who recalled forming a task force to examine the issue in 2006.
AP courses are designed “to give kids a real-life taste of what college is going to be like,” said deputy superintendent of schools Paul Larkin. “An AP class shows our students, their families and staff that they’re college-ready.” For college applications, an AP class on the high school transcript demonstrates that a student is willing to work at a higher level and tackle difficult material. High scores on the tests, similar to college finals, can save money and time because many colleges accept AP test scores in place of college prerequisite classes.
AP course enrollment and final test results factored into the U.S. News rating system, which analyzed high schools nationwide through a three-step process. Students had to perform better than expected for the average student in the state; the least-advantaged students had to perform better than average for similar students in Kansas; AP test data provided the final piece of information.
Liberal’s results were particularly significant in light of the fact that 78 percent of the district’s students are minorities (of which 67 percent are Hispanic), and 69 percent are considered economically disadvantaged. The school enrolls approximately 1,200 students.
In terms of state reading and math assessments, the district scored high: for reading, 92 percent of the LHS students reached proficiency levels, and for math, 87 percent made the mark.
“The rating reflects the fact that our students have shown they can learn at high levels,” said Larkin. “It’s a great feeling to see that the kids have bought into it, the teachers have bought into it. There’s a sense of commitment that we can push rigor and high standards.”
News of the ranking may serve as a last shot of motivation at LHS, where the next few days will bring high-stakes, three-hour exams.
“AP testing begins this week,” Adams said. “So our students and staff will be busy with a full schedule.”
Scores for the 2013 exams will not be available until mid-June.