Rural schools access college online

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 15, 2005

GREENE/HALE-There’s a big obstacle for ambitious students in Greene and Hale counties who want to get a jump on their college credit: there’s no nearby college to go to. But now, the college is about come to them.

It’s arriving in the form of Stillman Academy, a unique new program developed by Tuscaloosa’s Stillman College and promoted in partnership with U.S. Congressman Artur Davis. The Academy will allow students in Greene and Hale counties to take an intense six-week battery of college courses via the Internet. In addition to freshman-level Mathematics and English courses, the program will offer tutorials on applying for financial aid and taking the ACT, a college entrance exam.

“This is the type of innovative program that our public and private colleges and universities should be promoting for our youth in the Black Belt,” Davis said in a public statement. “By investing in these students now, we are not just encouraging them to seek a higher education, but to return home and invest that knowledge in their communities.

“The Stillman Academy can be the first step in increasing the quality of life for hundreds of children in West Alabama,” Davis added, “and I applaud Stillman and Dr. McNealey for implementing this program.”

Dr. Earnest McNealey is the President of Stillman, and George Lee, assistant vice president for enrollment, says that McNealey has been the driving force behind the program’s creation.

“It’s his baby,” says Lee. “Dr. McNealey thought that it would be a good idea for Stillman to reconnect with the Black Belt counties. He’s very excited about the program.”

Lee was in Eutaw Tuesday to start registration for the Academy’s first ever group of students.

“We’ve got 29 students from Greene County registered,” he said. “For the first time, we were able to do a demonstration of what the program will be like.”

A second demonstration and a parent question-and-answer session is planned for next week in Hale County, on the campus of Greensboro East. Although the demonstration and registration meetings are being held at Greene County High and Greensboro East, seniors from any high school in either county are welcome to enroll.

“All students are invited to participate,” Lee said, “from all schools, not just Greensboro East.”

The registration procedure is as simple as Stillman could make it, Lee says.

“It’s a simple method. We’ll hand out the forms and the students turn them back in to the Principal. We’ll also be leaving forms with the Principal,” he says. “All we need is their names, address, and gender. It’s the simplest registration I’ve ever experienced.”

Once registration is complete, the program will officially kick off later this month. For six weeks, students will be able to log on to the Internet to access worksheets, complete assignments, and most importantly, engage their Stillman professors as if they were in a classroom setting.

“We’ll be assisting schools with some technology,” Lee said, “where students at the school will be able, through video and the Internet, to see and interact with the professor.”

Although the video technology will not likely be available from the students’ home computers (it requires a high-speed connection, an Apple brand computer, and special hardware), if they have an internet connection they will still be able to access and complete coursework from their homes.

“We will be using the Blackboard educational software,” Lee said, “which is very helpful. If students do not have a connection at home, they should be able to do everything they would need to do at their school. The principals have agreed to open up the computer labs for this program.”

The courses will be taught by regular Stillman faculty and will differ little in content from the “prescribed” math and English courses taught on Stillman’s campus, although the six-week timeframe will speed the courses up a good deal.

“We’re going to try to get through it in six weeks,” Lee said. “In the future we’ll hopefully be able to have it on a normal semester schedule.”

The students’ reward for finishing the coursework is a jump-start on their college credit. The credits will be counted towards a degree at Stillman for free if the student chooses to enroll there, or can be transferred to another institution for a nominal fee.

If all goes according to plan this year, students in other counties and from other classes (juniors and even sophomores) will also be able to participate in the Academy in the future.

“We’re hoping to enroll students from Marengo, Sumter, and other Black Belt counties later this year,” Lee said.

One of the primary goals of the program, Lee said, is to educate students not only about Math and English, but what exactly college-level Math and English courses are like.

“We want to give them their first taste of college,” he said. “A lot of students arrive at Stillman thinking of freshman year as 13th grade, and that’s not the truth. We want to dispel that notion and relieve some of the anxiety that comes with that realization.”

Students interested in the Academy should contact Lee at 205-366-8954 or e-mail him at glee@stillman.edu.