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Learning program expands in Lawrence

By M.J. Ellington
and Kristen Bishop
kbishop@decaturdaily.com 340-2443

MONTGOMERY — The state's distance learning lab program is expanding to two Lawrence County high schools.

Lawrence County High and Hazlewood High are among 26 schools newly offering classes including Advanced Placement, technical and science, languages and others not usually available in rural areas and smaller schools.

Gov. Bob Riley announced the expansion of the state ACCESS distance learning initiative in his State of the State address Tuesday night. The schools will offer the program beginning in August.

Students will interact with teachers and students across the state via computers using Internet and Web-based video conferencing.

Teachers will be "highly qualified" in the subjects they teach, said Riley.

Riley and state Education Superintendent Joe Morton praised the program, which they said gives students in smaller schools the opportunity to take classes not offered to them because of a lack of demand or resources.

Riley called ACCESS "a 21st century approach to learning."

The Lawrence County school system is one of the rural systems unable to offer elective courses found at other schools.

The county Board of Education already struggles to maintain a basic curriculum at each of its seven high schools. Additional classes are not an option.

One controversial solution is consolidating the schools and freeing teachers to instruct elective or Advanced Placement classes.

Opponents of consolidation have said the county's distance learning labs could solve the curriculum problem without depriving students of the benefits of small, community schools.

Two of the county's seven high schools, R.A. Hubbard and Moulton High, and the Lawrence County Center of Technology already have distance learning labs.

Officials plan to move the Center of Technology's distance learning lab to another high school since it's located next to Lawrence County High. They have not decided which of the remaining high schools, Mt. Hope, Speake and Hatton, will receive the lab.

After the new labs are installed, only two high schools will not have access to distance learning labs.

Superintendent Dexter Rutherford said in January that he hoped to have one in every school by the end of the year.

"These two additional labs from the state are definitely opening doors for us," he said. "As far as the other two, we might be able to fund them locally. We'll have to look at the budget and talk to board members."

Each distance learning lab is designed to offer a variety of courses ranging from Spanish I to Advanced Placement English. However, courses are not always available because of scheduling conflicts.

Schools submit the number of students interested in each class to the state office. Officials then organize a schedule based on demand. This often leads to certain classes not being offered at all or being offered at an inconvenient time for some students.

The Center of Technology's distance learning lab is offering Latin I and AP History through ACCESS and English 101 and 102 through a dual-enrollment program with Northwest Shoals Community College this semester.

While 14 students are enrolled in the college courses, only two are enrolled in the ACCESS courses.

"It's a new concept, and we jumped in pretty quick," said Rutherford. "There have been some scheduling glitches — growing pains if you will — but I think this program will grow with time."

The latest additions will increase ACCESS statewide to about 10,000 students in grades 9-12.

The distance learning lab program began with a pilot group of 24 schools, including R.A. Hubbard in Courtland, in fall of 2005. Another 20 schools were added the following year.

Riley said during his State of the State address that he wants another 126 schools added in 2008.

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