Suzy Kelley | Kenneth Cole

Archived Story

A Free College Education: Gateway to Education gives Alexander City’s BRHS students the opportunity to attend Central Alabama Community College free of tuition

Published 3:57pm Monday, April 4, 2011

You’ve heard of K-12 education – now try K-14.
The Alexander City Chamber Foundation Inc. administers The Gateway to Education Scholarship Assistance Program, a unique education and workforce development initiative that provides up to 64 credit hours of free college tuition to Benjamin Russell High School graduating seniors who meet the entrance requirements to Central Alabama Community College.
Around the year 2000, a group of local residents decided they wanted to separate Alexander City from similar cities trying to attract industries and people. Joe Robinson, the foundation’s first president, was in that group.
“We thought if we offered a better-educated population and workforce that it would be attractive, and to achieve that we wanted to enable everyone to go K-14 instead of K-12,” Robinson said. “Some students sort of dead end in the K-12 program, so to give them some incentive in the K-12 program, they did have to graduate from Benjamin Russell High School to enter this program. That did change the graduation rate and the interest of some of the students that thought they had nowhere to go if they did graduate.”
By 2003, Gateway was up and running. And by spring 2006, the first class of students to utilize the program completed their two years at Central Alabama Community College after at least five semesters tuition-free.
The Alexander City Chamber Foundation is a 501(c)(3) non-profit charitable corporation that is separate from but is managed by the Alexander City Chamber of Commerce. Chamber of Commerce president Marvin Wagoner is responsible for overseeing the foundation’s administrative affairs.
“(As of spring 2011) we’ve had approximately 250 students that have received scholarships for the Gateway program,” Wagoner said.
According to the chamber, the Gateway to Education program is completely supported by community efforts including grants, foundations, civic clubs, religious organizations, small businesses, corporations and individuals.
“It is an investment in the future of our young people,” said chamber officer Susan Foy. “It is a quality of life factor that simply comes to families that choose to raise their children in our community. It is a visible and real statement of the character of the community called Alexander City.”
In 2003, Ben Russell made a $250,000 contribution over a period of five years to Gateway. According to Robinson, it was more than just a generous contribution – it was the seed money needed to jumpstart the program.
Since then, the program has received many other donations, pledges and grants and even receives a percentage of the lodging taxes at Wind Creek State Park. Robinson said that their goal now is to fund the program in perpetuity, and he thinks targeting large foundations is the way to do that.
“It’s still an ongoing program. It’s not fully funded,” he said. “We’re in the final phase and, done properly, it should fund it in perpetuity. We still need monies right now because we’re funding as we go but we’re not increasing.”
Current Alexander City Chamber Foundation president Susie Kelley said the chamber developed another way for residents to donate in 2010 when they teamed up with Alexander City Utilities to create the Check on Education Program. This program allows people to make a routine contribution that is split 50-50 between the foundation and the Alexander City Schools Education Foundation, which helps provide new technology for schools.
People can contribute as little as $1 a billing cycle or as much as they want.
“I know this is a great tool for economic development, but it’s also a great tool for young people to have to further their education,” Kelley said. “I believe in it, I believe in this community and I believe in the schools.”
Though Robinson admits that Gateway to Education alone likely won’t attract industry to the area, he does think it adds a lot to the community’s resume.
“I don’t think it’s a reason of itself, but I used to like to make a speech where I’d compare Alexander City to Andalusia and say, ‘OK, we’re both about an hour from Montgomery we’re both from textile towns that are drying up – everything else looks about the same,” he said. “If you had to decide to put a plant in one place, this hopefully would make a difference.”
Robinson said he believes it speaks volumes about the people of Alexander City that they would take it upon themselves to create the Gateway program.
“I think it made a big difference that the citizens were strong enough to do that themselves,” he said. “That would say a lot to me about a community. Not to mention the product we’re producing – but that you’ve got a community that said ‘We’re going to pick ourselves up and make it better.’”
~ Natalie Nettles

Gateway to Education
The Gateway Scholarship provides up to 64 hours of  college credit free to all Benjamin Russell High School students who meet Central Alabama Community College entrance requirements.
2006 saw the first graduating class of Gateway students
About 250 students have taken advantage of the     Gateway Scholarship through Spring of 2011.
City leaders are currently working to fund in perpetuity the Gateway to Education scholarship program.