MOWEAQUA — Four Central A&M High School students are participating in a virtual Advanced Placement class this semester.
It's a state pilot program with 10 school districts that education officials will study to see if the program could make the college-level courses available to rural high school
s that traditionally have had few or none in the past.
"Rural kids need opportunities, they need to be on an even playing field," said Bobbi Mattingly, Regional Office of Education superintendent for Clark, Coles, Cumberland, Douglas, Edgar, Moultrie and Shelby counties.
The program was formally unveiled Thursday at Central A&M by Lt. Gov. Evelyn Sanguinetti, who heads the governor's Rural Affairs Advisory Council. Sanguinetti said that council has allocated funds to cover half the $225 per-pupil cost of the virtual class for 75 students statewide. The other half is covered by participating districts.
"We were told (in the rural affairs council) that rural districts are underserved, and this is doing something about it," Sanguinetti said.
AP classes are designed to prepare students for an exam on that class' subject in May administered by the College Board, the national testing organization that also oversees the SAT and ACT tests. The tests typically are made up of more advanced subject matter than what's offered in typical high school curricula, and many universities offer college credit for them.
But they're far more common in urban school districts, where bigger schools and available funding make more class choices possible
. The Decatur School District was the only district in the metro area where at least 30 percent of high school seniors had taken an AP class by the time they graduated, according to College Board data from 2015.
The May exams are scored on a scale of 1 to 5 — scores 3 and above are accepted by Illinois undergraduate programs by law as college credit. The pilot project through the governor's office will not cover the $94 cost to take the exam.
"There's a lot of research offering AP classes virtually, and one of the major pieces missing from much of the research is, how effective is it versus face-to face teaching," Mattingly said.
The virtual class is through Illinois Virtual School, an internet-based education program run by the Illinois State Board of Education. Some 6,000 high school students in Illinois are currently taking at least one virtual class through IVS, according to Jennifer Kolar-Burden, the program's coordinator of curriculum.
Given the astronomical rise of college tuition, Sanguinetti said students in rural districts are missing out on an opportunity to have completed college credits out of high school that can count to their degree if they successfully complete a class.
Central A&M's principal, Dr. Charles Brown, said he offered the opportunity to 10 students in each grade who were "serious students," and selected four randomly: Seniors Laura Beckett, Riley Black, Kaley Nidiffer, and Junior Alaina Morse.
"These are four of our best," Brown said.
Online-based classes in higher education have exploded in the past decade, but they are less common at the high school level — of the four Central A&M AP students, only Nidiffer had taken a class online before, which was Spanish.
"It was definitely more difficult I think, having it online (versus in person)," she said. "You had to do multiple lessons every day to keep up with it, but it was pretty fun and everything — they had exercises to help out."