In 2003, Alabama was ranked among the lowest-performing states for producing high school and college graduates. Students in rural and impoverished areas were dropping out of high school in droves—not surprising considering the lack of teachers and very limited access to the “Advanced Placement” courses that improve student success in both college and career. Just over ten years later, the changes have been dramatic. With the implementation of the ACCESS (Alabama Connecting Classrooms, Educators, and Students Statewide) Distance Learning program, the state is now leveraging technology to help impact student success.
For Rural Youth, it Wasn’t a Level Playing Field
The major issue came down to dollars available to fund education. Alabama’s rural areas didn’t have the robust population necessary to create a strong tax base that would fund anything beyond basic school programs. There were fewer resources available to keep students engaged and heading toward graduation.
In many cases, students in rural areas who were interested in attending college had no access to Advanced Placement (AP) courses. “AP courses are college-level courses in subjects like Government and Economics that give high school students a chance to experience what they will face when they go to college and even earn college credit,” explains Larry Raines, ACCESS Program Administrator.
Without the Right Teachers, There Was Less Opportunity
Schools in rural Alabama and impoverished areas also had problems attracting and retaining teachers, especially teachers for AP courses. Sometimes there simply weren’t enough students to justify the expense of a teacher.
“Back when I worked in a small rural high school, I could not afford to dedicate a teacher to an AP course for just three or four students,” he says. “That was the problem. Those three or four students missed out.”
Being Online Helps Keep Students in School
A team dedicated to addressing the matter led to the creation of the ACCESS (Alabama Connecting Classrooms, Educators, and Students Statewide) Distance Learning Initiative. In 2006, ACCESS partnered with D2L to provide innovative online learning to high school students throughout the state. Now, students in rural and impoverished areas have access to enriched resources—including the valuable AP courses. Discussion and Dropbox tools allow for improved student interaction, and online quizzes help ensure students are progressing. They can even fulfill most of the requirements for graduation online.
“Students are also more likely to communicate with the online teacher using the email tool than they are to ask questions in a bricks-and-mortar school because the intimidation factor between the teacher and student is not as strong,” says Raines. “That helps to increase the student-teacher communication that’s vital to success in all courses.”
He adds, “In the past, students sometimes dropped out of school to work and support their families. Using the Brightspace platform they can work at a job and do some of their course work too, so we are seeing how that is helping students continue towards graduation.”
Monitoring Students Keeps Them from Falling Behind
Before ACCESS, it was easy for high school students to drop off the radar, especially in areas without enough faculty support. The Brightspace platform enables educators to pull students back in when they fall behind.
“D2L helped us create a report that allows us to monitor student activity,” says Raines. “We are dealing with more than 27,000 students taking courses, the majority of whom are scheduled to go to their high school computer lab or video conferencing lab sometime during the day. The report allows us to monitor students statewide so we know who has not been participating for more than a week.”
Extending the Reach of Great Teachers
Through the program, all high school students in the state now have equal access to courses—and great teachers. Videoconferencing allows teachers to inspire and motivate students in rural and impoverished areas. Since the teacher can’t be onsite, local schools employ facilitators who monitor students, help with technical issues and provide assistance to the teacher.
“A lot of times we use the term ‘user friendly’ as a joke, but with Brightspace it’s very true. We are constantly requiring our teachers to be involved in training to help them better use Brightspace and keep up with best practices, but they enjoy using it—that’s the difference.”
John Halbrooks, ACCESS Registration Administrator, State of Alabama
Biggest Growth in Advanced Placement Participation in the US
ACCESS on the Brightspace platform is changing the face of education in Alabama. “In the last couple of years Alabama has shown the biggest growth in Advanced Placement participation in the nation. We feel that’s due in large part to the fact that ACCESS has made AP courses available to students throughout our state in multiple situations that would not have been possible before,” says Raines.
“We’re better preparing students for college and their careers, whatever they might be,” he says. “And we know that in the long run that’s going to come back to the state as a big plus in terms of their potential for earning income.”
ACCESS Gives Minority Groups the Chance to Compete
Since 2004, the number of AP exam takers in Alabama public schools has almost doubled. What’s more, the number of African-American students taking those exams has more than quadrupled and the number of qualifying exam scores has more than doubled. Five times more low-income students are taking Advanced Placement exams.
 Information courtesy of ACCESS Distance Learning