Special Report
College & Workforce Readiness

Ala. Opens Wide Access to Blended Learning

By Robin L. Flanigan — October 23, 2012 7 min read
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Belgreen High School in Russellville, Ala., stands in one of state’s most rural pockets. It serves 400 students in K-12 and has been losing teachers every year because of budget cuts. But about 20 students are taking the same courses offered to those in more affluent suburban and urban areas through the Alabama ACCESS Distance and Blended Learning Initiative.

ACCESS—for Alabama Connecting Classrooms, Educators, and Students Statewide—offers free Web-based and interactive videoconferencing courses to students in grades 8-12, removing education inequities that have put many of the state’s students at a disadvantage.

“Because of our lack of personnel and the way that Alabama chooses to fund the educational process in our state, our students would not be as competitive once they reach college otherwise,” said Belgreen Principal Myra Frederick.

With one-third of Alabama public school students in rural schools, the Innosight Institute, an innovation consulting firm based in San Mateo, Calif., conducted a case study on ACCESS, which was launched in 2006 and by the end of 2010 had become the third-largest state virtual education program in the country.

“We had this theory that online learning is particularly suitable in its early stages, where there are literally no alternatives for taking higher-level courses,” said Heather Staker, the senior research fellow for Innosight and co-author of the study, published in 2011. “What we found out corroborated that theory, and now we have a way of reaching students we couldn’t before.”

By the end of 2010, ACCESS had 29,415 for-credit enrollments and 11,746 noncredit enrollments. That figure has since jumped to roughly 44,000 for-credit enrollments, a 30 percent spike in 2011-12 alone. (Foreign-language courses draw the most interest.)

What’s more, the number of Advanced Placement test-takers in Alabama public schools almost doubled from 2004 to 2010, the number of African-American test-takers more than quadrupled, and the number of qualifying exam scores more than doubled. In addition, Alabama’s high school graduation rate climbed from 62.1 to 69 percent between 2002 and 2008, a gain that was 4.3 percentage points higher than the national average. Although grants and other factors may have contributed to some of those advances, Innosight credits ACCESS as the driving force in bringing advanced coursework and alternative education options to the state’s students.

But there have been challenges.

Students who are not self-motivated have not done well with the online option, money has to be found for continuous equipment purchases and upgrades, and teachers need sufficient training. (Three regional support centers around the state address the latter, using blended models for professional development.)

Even so, ACCESS has gained international attention for the way it is preparing students for the 21st century, as well as its role in reversing statistics that place Alabama among the lowest-performing states for high school and college graduates. In 2003, three years before the program’s official launch, Alabama administered just 99 AP exams for every 1,000 juniors and seniors, ranking 14th out of 16 Southern states.

‘Filled a Void’

The idea for ACCESS came from then-Gov. Bob Riley, who had grown up in rural Clay County, a place that had two high schools and yet, by his inauguration in 2003, had never offered AP courses, with the exception of one AP English class. Knowing that situation was not an anomaly, Gov. Riley, a Republican, directed the state superintendent of education to convene a task force to write a plan that would use distance learning to bring equitable, high-quality instruction to every part of the state.

Results

In 2010, four years after its launch, the Alabama ACCESS Distance and Blended Learning Initiative had become the third-largest state virtual program in the country. As it was intended, ACCESS (Alabama Connecting Classrooms, Educators, and Students Statewide) was removed education inequities that have put many of the state’s students at a disadvantage.

The number of Advanced Placement test-takers in Alabama public schools more than doubled from 2004 to 2010, the number of African-American test-takers more than quadrupled, and the number of qualifying exam scores more than doubled. In addition, Alabama’s high school graduation rate climbed from 62.1 percent to 69 percent between 2002 and 2008, a gain that was 4.3 percentage points higher than the national average. The program, which has gained international attention for preparing students in one of the nation’s lowest-performing states for the 21st century, now has roughly 44,000 enrollments.

BRIC ARCHIVE

SOURCE: College Board

Originally funded as a $10.3 million line item in the state budget for fiscal year 2006, ACCESS received $18.5 million in fiscal year 2013 from the state. It also has undergone a name change since its early days. Recognizing that blended learning has become a transformative approach to teaching in many places around the country, the task force assigned to launch and operate the initiative changed the name in 2010 from ACCESS Distance Learning to ACCESS Distance and Blended Learning.

“We knew we were on to something early on, but that we needed to work toward expanding, to bring face-to-face components to all of our online courses as much as possible,” said task force member Earlene Patton, the coordinator of technology initiatives for the Alabama Department of Education, which supervises the program.

The task force has found that since ACCESS started, five times more low-income students are taking AP exams, and three times more are scoring 3 or higher on a 5-point scale.

“It’s obviously filled a void for us,” said Don Hulin, another task force member and the principal of the 2,630-student Hoover High School in Hoover, Ala., a suburb of Birmingham. The school has an 11 percent transient population, most of whom arrive as juniors or seniors, “so ACCESS has been a tremendous help in getting these kids to where they can graduate on time with their class,” Mr. Hulin said.

Hoover High piloted a blended approach to instructional delivery in 2010-11, in which 50 seniors had the option of taking 12th grade English and/or 12th grade economics and U.S. government. They met face to face with their teacher once a week and completed assignments and held discussions online using Facebook, Twitter, Edmodo, and other online networks. The pilot was successful—there was a waiting list of interested students—despite the complications of finding enough teachers, equipment, and computer-lab time to accommodate demand.

With Alabama having one of the fastest-growing rural populations in the country, ACCESS, which plans to focus more heavily on blended learning in the years ahead, has been lauded for representing its title well.

“It’s a wonderful acronym,” said Roy Black, an ACCESS and AP computer science teacher at the 486-student Loveless Academic Magnet High School in Montgomery, Ala. “This program is providing access to an education these kids wouldn’t have otherwise. There really is nowhere else they can turn.”

When Mr. Black began teaching AP computer science courses through ACCESS four years ago, he had a handful of students. That number rose to 40 in 2011-12, and 50 for 2012-13. The courses are rigorous—Mr. Black estimates that about 40 percent of his ACCESS students drop out—but for those who persevere, the rewards expand beyond the blended classroom. Two years ago, for instance, Mr. Black invited some of his ACCESS students to participate, along with his magnet school students, in a statewide high school programming contest hosted by the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

“I thought they’d just get a great experience, but one of my ACCESS kids actually won the entire thing,” he said. “I was so proud of him.”

Enrollments Rising

ACCESS program administrator Larry Raines said enrollment increases every semester, in part because of new middle school offerings and a new credit-recovery program. A pilot of four credit-recovery courses offered in the summer of 2011 went well, prompting the state to expand the number of course options to 19 in 2011-12. That year, 71 percent of the 2,227 half-credits that were attempted were earned back. The number of courses has remained at 19 for 2012-13, which has seen a nearly 18 percent increase in credit-recovery requests.

The credit-recovery program is vital to students who transfer from other districts that have different course requirements, explained Stan Stokley, the principal of Sweet Water High School in Sweet Water, Ala., where 88 of the K-12 school’s 650 students take at least one ACCESS course.

“We may teach 10th grade English only two times during the day, and if your 11th grade science class is during that time slot, there would be no way to fit it into your schedule,” he said.

Mr. Stokley also appreciates that his students can pursue their interests even if his staff doesn’t have the time or ability to make that happen.

Junior Andrea Landrum has known for some time that she wants to be an accounting major in college, for example. Five days a week during her sophomore year, she took an ACCESS accounting course in her school’s computer lab taught by someone in another part of the state—the only student at Sweet Water to do so.

“I got the chance to see what accounting would be like, and it made me even more interested in it,” she said. “It was a privilege to have the opportunity to take a class that my school doesn’t offer.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 24, 2012 edition of Education Week as Ala. Makes Access a high priority

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