QUINCY -- Ashley Zimmerman pulls out a folder, notebook and highlighter for her second hour government class, then starts to read a text on the art of politics for her next assignment.
But this is no typical class for Zimmerman or her classmate Sarah Wilson.
There's no teacher in the room, but he's available by phone, email or text. There's no classroom or desk, so instead the two sit in front of computers at the Quincy High School library. And it's up to them to stay on track with the "pacing chart" with weekly assignments for the online class.
"It is all on your own. We've got to try to keep up with time management to stay on pace with everything," Zimmerman said. "It really is like an introduction to college. This is what it's like."
The class is part of a new Advanced Placement pilot program giving students at rural Illinois high schools better access to classes to prepare them for college.
"Technically, the pilot program is looking at ways to expand AP offerings to rural schools that don't have enough enrollment or the right staff to offer upper level courses," QHS Principal Jody Steinke said.
Seventy-five students at 10 high schools in rural areas across the state, including four at QHS, are taking online AP classes as part of a new initiative of the Governor's Rural Affairs Council.
"AP classes help prepare students for college and can even make college more affordable, but unfortunately access to AP classes is extremely limited in rural areas," Lt. Gov. Evelyn Sanguinetti, who chairs the council, said in a news ?release. "This pilot program will test the feasibility of expanding AP classes through distance education so that students in rural Illinois will get the same opportunities to learn as their counterparts in the urban areas of our state."
QHS already offers several AP classes -- including the government class which is required for graduation -- but is participating in the program to see how viable classes through Illinois Virtual Schools could be for students. IVS is the supplemental online program through the Illinois State Board of Education.
"Anything that expands options for kids is a good thing," Steinke said.
Steinke said some students already use IVS for a class or for home school. "We're familiar with it, but it's the first time we've made it a part of our curriculum," he said.
It's the first online course for Zimmerman and Wilson, and it's Wilson's first AP class. Zimmerman already is enrolled in a traditional AP psychology class. "I usually don't go for AP courses, but I thought online would be a good opportunity to try it," Wilson said.
The course moves quickly, starting Jan. 11 and wrapping up May 10 -- about three weeks before QHS classes end -- and it's been an adjustment for both students.
"We're starting slowly to get it," Wilson said while working on a written reflection about strategies for online courses. "In school we're doing a lot online, so writing stuff online isn't that much different than stuff we do."
Even last week's snow day didn't keep Zimmerman away from classwork or checking her IVS email. "I spent about three hours on the website trying to get caught up. I have a better feel for where everything is at," she said.
"With snow days and everything we can still keep up with our lessons. We don't have to wait. We can go on and do it ourselves," Wilson said. "This is based on us, based on our own leadership. We don't have to wait for other students."
They're getting to know the teacher and the other students, responding to reflections each student posted to introduce themselves. "We'll be doing more discussion boards," Zimmerman said. "There will be times when we have to plug in headphones and do virtual chats or visually speak with (the teacher) and other students."
Both want to see QHS continue exploring online classes as another option for students, and both say they would take another online class – at least in certain subjects.
"I wouldn't take a math course online when I know I need a ton of help from the teacher. English or history I would," Wilson said. "Even if we can't get hold of the (online) teacher, we have teachers here who can help us. We're on the computer if we have to look something up."
With second hour wrapping up, Zimmerman and Wilson get ready to head to more traditional classes.
"I just kind of like the change," Zimmerman said. "I can relax and do my own thing, then go back to a regular class. It breaks it up a little bit."