By Trent Moore
The Cullman Times
Local education officials hope a new dual-enrollment scholarship program created by the Alabama Legislature will help open up career opportunities for more students, by providing assistance to high school students wanting to take technology courses simultaneously at a community college.
The scholarship bill, sponsored by Rep. Mac Buttram (R-Cullman) was passed Senate 33-1 by the Senate on Tuesday, and cleared the House 100-0 in February. Gov. Robert Bentley is expected to sign it into law soon.
Cullman County Board of Education Superintendent Billy Coleman said he believes the new program, which allows individuals and businesses to get state income tax credits for donating money to provide scholarships, represents a renewed focus on the “crucial” area of technical training. The county school system already manages its own technical center, which continues to steadily increase enrollment and is near-capacity this year.
“More than anything, I’m encouraged to see that an emphasis is being placed on career tech, that’s the big thing. Probably about eight years ago, career tech centers in the state were literally closing, but our tech center did not close,” he said. “They were really struggling from a lack of focus on career tech. We all know the career tech jobs support our economy, and those are so important, and we have some tremendously talented students who have an opportunity to really hone those talents and have great jobs waiting for them when they get out of our program.”
Coleman said he believes the scholarship program will be a great addition to the certifications and classes already offered at the system’s own center, and allow even more students to take advantage of training courses offered by community colleges such as Wallace State in Hanceville.
“Last year we started an ROTC program at our career tech school, and this year we started an engineering program. Next year we’re doing industrial maintenance, which is something our local industries have told us they need,” he said. “Each year we’ve added a program that’s able to reach out to students, and both have been very well-received by our students. I think this brings some attention to career tech, and provides some opportunities beyond high school for those students invested in those career paths. It’s a common sense approach.”
Wallace State’s Director of Dual Enrollment Diana Majerik noted career tech is already a very popular option for local students, and said the new scholarship program could help inspire even more students to learn a trade.
“It absolutely opens up more opportunities. Wallace State has been offering career tech scholarships for students the past three years, and has awarded 132 students scholarships for career tech, so it opens that up even more for students in our area,” she said. “Sometimes all they need is that extra motivation, and to know they have an opportunity to go on past high school and get a degree. With more funding, more students will have those opportunities.”
Cullman City Schools Superintendent Dr. Doreen Griffeth did not return a message left seeking comment on the bill by deadline of this article.
The maximum number of tax credits under the state program each year would be $5 million and that could provide $10 million in scholarships for 9,500 students annually, with a focus on low-income students.
“This can be a game changer for students who don’t have the opportunity now,” Buttram told the Associated Press.
Businesses that donate to the scholarship program can steer up to 80 percent of their donation to help train students in a particular field. Buttram said that makes business and education partners in making sure Alabama has a well-trained workforce.
Bentley said expanding dual enrollment was one of the recommendations from the College and Career Ready Task Force he created last year. “Job creation is my top priority, and we must have the skilled workforce ready for the jobs we recruit,” the governor said.
Democratic Sen. Hank Sanders of Selma cast the lone vote against the bill. He said he supports dual enrollment, but the bill does not contain safeguards to make sure the program pays off financially.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Trent Moore can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com, or by telephone at 734-2131, ext. 134.