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Online College Provides Access To Nontraditional Students

By Koran Addo, St. Louis Post-Dispatch (TNS)

ST. LOUIS– Two years ago, it might have seemed strange when Governor Jay Nixon starting pushing for Missouri to create its own branch of Western Governors University.

After all, WGU is a bit of an oddity. It’s a nonprofit online university that doesn’t use teachers. Students work at their own pace and are assigned course mentors who offer tutoring, advice, or pep talks as needed. Students can also skip large sections of the curriculum if they can demonstrate command of the subject.

After two years and a state investment of four million dollars, WGU-Missouri leaders say the school is doing what it’s supposed to do: providing access to students who don’t fit the mold of a traditional student.

Students, they say, are earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees more quickly and for less money.

However, skeptics say the WGU model cheats students out of the one-on-one interactions between teachers and students that typically drive the learning process. There’s also concern that the idea of quicker and cheaper degrees could entice students who aren’t disciplined enough to be successful in WGU’s hands-off approach.

Sarah Powell, 39, is perhaps the prototypical WGU student.

She had an associate’s degree in veterinary technology from Jefferson College that she wasn’t using. Later, as a stay-at-home mother caring for her three children, she opened a day care center at her house.

“I was working 14- to 16-hour days taking care of other people’s kids, and I just finally decided I wanted something more,” she said.

Powell eventually enrolled in WGU, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in teaching in a little over three years.

Powell said she liked WGU’s competency-based model, where instead of the traditional A-F grading system, students pass or fail.

“Either you know it or you don’t,” Powell said. “If you are struggling on your assignments, you redo them. They don’t allow you to get by. You have to pass with the equivalent of what would be a B grade.”

Powell is now a seventh-grade science teacher at Valley Middle School in the Northwest School District in House Springs. Powell graduated from the national WGU before Missouri started its own chapter. Missouri’s version has 1,400 students enrolled and has graduated just under 550 students in two years of operation.

A recent Harris Interactive survey of new graduates found that 82 percent of WGU graduates were employed full time, compared with the national average of 77 percent. A Gallup-Purdue survey of students who graduated in the past five years, showed that WGU students were more likely to self-report as engaged and thriving in their jobs than graduates of other schools.

Matching productive people with jobs they can thrive in follows one of the loftier goals in higher education circles: putting a dent in the estimated 36 million Americans who’ve completed some college but didn’t earn a degree.

“We are doing what we were created to do,” said Angie Besendorfer, WGU-Misouri’s chancellor.

Dedicated students, she said, can earn a degree 30 percent more quickly and for half the cost of students enrolled at a traditional four-year university. Rather than offering semesters, WGU is organized into six-month periods, each costing roughly $3,000. Students can take as many classes as they can handle in each period.

But a Washington State study of more than 50,000 students found that those who enrolled in online courses were more likely to fail or drop out of school than students who enrolled on brick-and-mortar campuses. A Columbia University study found similar results.

Both studies dealt with community college students, but the logic translates to four-year schools: Significant numbers of students require a strong connection with their teachers to succeed.

Besendorfer said she didn’t put too much stock in critics who say WGU students miss out on one-on-one interactions with instructors. Students read course materials, watch Web videos and turn in assignments, much like traditional students do. Besendorfer said students who had a good grasp of a course could test out of a course immediately by passing an exam, writing a paper, or completing a project demonstrating their knowledge of the subject. Students who struggle can lean on course mentors for one-on-one tutoring, she said.

“This model has been around for a long time,” she said, and has been successful.

WGU was founded in 1997 by 19 sitting governors. So far, WGU has enrolled more than 55,000 students, with an average age of 36.

With its origins as an economic development engine, WGU isn’t the place to earn a liberal arts degree. Instead, the focus is narrowed to a number of key areas: information technology, business, teaching, and health.

WGU is based in Utah, but so far five states have created their own offshoots. Some — including Missouri’s — were started with taxpayer money, but each one supports itself through tuition and private donations. WGU-Missouri got started with a four million dollar community development block grant from the state to help with startup costs.

Because Missouri created an affiliate of the national university, WGU spends more marketing dollars here than in other states, WGU officials said. Nixon has appeared in television ads touting the benefits of WGU-Missouri.

As an online-only school, WGU competes with schools such as Kaplan University and the University of Phoenix. But unlike many of its competitors, WGU is a nonprofit. Even so, Chief Executive Officer Robert Mendenhall earns more than $600,000 a year.

Rusty Monhollon, assistant commissioner for academic affairs with the Missouri Department of Higher Education, said two years wasn’t enough time to assess how well WGU-Missouri was doing.

As WGU-Missouri produces more data, the school will ultimately be judged on how well its graduates perform on standardized tests, licensing exams, and other precursors to employment, he said.

“Ultimately, the purpose of any institution is to help students learn and to get students to be successful,” Monhollon said. “The competency-based model is a proven way for some students to achieve that.”

Photo: J.B. Forbes via St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS

Some Witnesses Told Obvious Lies To Michael Brown Grand Jury, Prosecutor Says

By Koran Addo, St. Louis Post-Dispatch (TNS)

ST. LOUIS — Certain witnesses who spoke before the grand jury investigating the Aug. 9 shooting of Michael Brown told obvious lies under oath, St. Louis Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch said.

“Clearly some were not telling the truth,” he said Friday morning during an interview on KTRS-AM.

In his first extensive interview since the grand jury decided not to indict Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson, McCulloch said he had no regrets about letting grand jury members hear from non-credible witnesses.

“Early on I decided that anyone who claimed to have witnessed anything would be presented to the grand jury,” McCulloch said before adding that he would’ve been criticized no matter his decision.

During the interview, McCulloch referenced a woman who claimed to have seen the shooting.

This “lady clearly wasn’t present,” McCulloch said during the nearly 30-minute interview on KTRS. “She recounted a story right out of the newspaper,” backing up Wilson’s version of events.

The criticism of that witness fits the questions surrounding Sandra McElroy, also known as Witness 40.

McElroy, who has admitted to using racial slurs and trying to raise money for Wilson, testified that she saw the entire shooting unfold, and that Brown charged the officer shortly before he was killed — a detail that has been at the center of the shooting because of conflicting reports.

Investigators picked apart McElroy’s story, saying she could not have left the apartment complex in the way she described.

She also gave conflicting accounts of why she was at the scene of the shooting that day and admitted that she has short-term memory problems from a head-on collision that left her with a traumatic brain injury.

McCulloch on Friday also said he had no regrets about announcing the grand jury decision after dark on the night of Nov. 24.

“There was no good time to make the announcement,” he said. “Whatever was going to happen was going to happen.”

The nighttime decision, he added, was good for area schools and also allowed business owners time to decide if they would open the next day.

Of the riots that followed the announcement, McCulloch said they were out of his control.

“Those who were bent on destruction, they weren’t demonstrators, they’re common criminals,” he said.

Photo: Joe Newman via Flickr

Weariness Of Ferguson Protests Grows

By Koran Addo, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

ST. LOUIS — Brian Fletcher loves Ferguson. He brags about it, he rattles off historical facts about it and, as the former mayor, he feels the urge to stick up for the city and its people.
And right now, he says people are tired of the constant protesting, tired of the noise, and tired of feeling intimidated.
That’s the exact reaction many protest leaders said they are hoping for.
It’s been more than two months since Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson fatally shot 18-year-old Michael Brown.
Since then, protests have sprung up around the region, spreading most recently to downtown St. Louis, St. Louis University, Webster Groves and also the Shaw neighborhood, where crowds have gathered to protest the fatal shooting of teenager Vonderitt Myers Jr. by St. Louis police.
In one incident, video cameras captured a heated back-and-forth between protesters and Cardinals fans outside Busch Stadium.
But the epicenter of the unrest is in Ferguson, and Fletcher, like many others, says it’s hard to remember what it felt like to live in Ferguson before the city became infamous.
On a typical day in Ferguson, there’s a persistent group of picketers along South Florissant Road, in front of the police station, holding signs with slogans like: “Justice for All,” and “Black Lives Matter.”
Ferguson resident Jill Hatcher said she used to drive by and honk her car horn in support.
“Now I speed by with my windows up and my doors locked,” she said.
Hatcher’s fear stems from the events at night, when protesters sometimes march in the street drumming and chanting into the early hours.
Aside from the noise, there have been shots fired, attempted arson, and some instances of looting.
Those are some of the reasons Fletcher started the “I Love Ferguson” group that is putting up yard signs, selling T-shirts, and raising money.
So far, the group has raised more than $50,000 that Fletcher said will be donated to businesses affected by looting.
“People around here were sympathetic at first. People wanted to know why was he shot. And why so many times,” Fletcher said. “There wasn’t a problem until people started feeling scared to go to the brew house and scared to go to the farmers market.”
Fletcher, who is white, also acknowledges that persistent racial tension underlies Ferguson’s new reality.
“I think quite frankly, Caucasians are intimidated by protesters who think that if they can make Caucasians feel uncomfortable, they can change the rules. And it’s working,” Fletcher said.
A number of black people also feel uncomfortable. Pam Peters has lived in Ferguson for 37 years.
“I don’t like the way people are talking about Ferguson now,” she said. “We are good people. We are tired of the protests.”
Peters said she doesn’t think Ferguson will ever go back to how it was before Michael Brown’s shooting.
“We just have way too many young people who are trying to stir the pot,” she said. “If police stop them for no reason, that’s not right. But, not to beat a dead horse, some of them bring it on themselves.”
Marie Ellison, who is white, said she supports the protests.
“When we’re talking about injustice, this should be everyone’s cause,” she said.
But Ellison acknowledged that she’s worn out.
“It’s hard to sleep. It’s hard to eat because of all of this going on around us,” she said. “No matter who you are, if you’re from Ferguson, you’re now looked at as the bad guy.”
Among people on both sides of the issue, many agree that a turning point came on the night of Sept. 23, when the Ferguson Fire Department responded to a small fire outside the Whistle Stop custard shop.
The century-old Whistle Stop building, a former train depot, is one of Ferguson’s historic landmarks. Law enforcement reported that someone had doused the outside of the building with gasoline.
Nearby, at Ferguson Optical, manager Tim Marrah said he’s surprised about the racial tone the protests have taken. He said one of Ferguson’s charms is that it’s always been a place where different races mixed.
Of the protesters, Marrah said he doesn’t see a need for them to leave, but rather, weed out the troublemakers.
“The protests don’t need to go anywhere. This thing needs to be resolved. The violence and the property damage is the problem, not the protests,” he said.
Down the street, at Natalie’s Cakes & More, owner Natalie Dubose said she supports people’s right to protest, while acknowledging the same unrest has essentially dried up the foot traffic that she relies on along South Florissant.
Business really took a dive when the farmers market down the street shut for the season earlier than usual because of the protests.
At one point, Dubose said she went two weeks without a single customer.
“I think it’s the perception that Ferguson now has,” she said. “People who would normally come through here now think it’s unsafe. It’s going to be very difficult to get out from under that.”
Ruffina Farrokh Anklesaria, a 12-year Ferguson resident, originally from Trinidad, said she chose Ferguson specifically because of its diversity.
“I didn’t want to stand out in an all-white community,” she said.
Her love of Ferguson, she said, compelled her to write a letter recently urging protesters to be respectful of the community.
“We understand why you are upset. But Ferguson is not the reason. Any problems of racism are wider than Ferguson. They are national,” she wrote. “Please end this in our city. If you must continue protesting this is not the place for Molotov cocktails, abuse of our residents and so on. We are a peace-loving people. Let us work this out please.”
Anklesaria has recently helped organize some community meetings with protesters. She said she thinks there has been progress in alleviating some of the discomfort.
But for some, discomfort is exactly the point. Alexis Templeton, 20, a Ferguson resident for 13 years, has emerged as one of the protest leaders.
“My response to the people who are tired of us is that you’ll be uncomfortable until we stop being uncomfortable,” she said. “We’ve been uncomfortable for years. You’ve been uncomfortable for a matter of days and now you feel it should end. That’s not fair.”
Templeton acknowledged that troublemakers throwing objects, looting stores, and causing other havoc are hurting the cause.
“But you can’t blame all of us because of a few bad apples,” she said. “Just like we can’t call everyone from Ferguson a racist, because they’re not.
“I encourage all Ferguson residents to come out and stand on the side of one of the marches and see that it is peaceful,” she said. “There is absolutely nothing to be afraid of.”

AFP Photo/Joshua Lott

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