ATLANTA (AP) — Dixie Edalgo and Allyson Reyer both graduated first in their class in Georgia public schools. Both now attend in-state public colleges.
But for these valedictorians, the road to college was dramatically different. Reyer, 18, graduated from Sprayberry High in Cobb County with a 4.578 grade point average and 39 hours of college credit through advanced placement courses. In her first year at The University of Georgia, she's already a sophomore.
Edalgo, 19, graduated from Wilcox High in the South Georgia town of Rochelle, where budget cuts forced a four-day week, advanced placement courses are not offered and an estimated two-thirds of students don't have Internet access at home. She graduated with a 4.0 but seldom had homework, and is now struggling with math as a freshman at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College, where a 2.0 - a low C average - is required for entry.
The paths of these top students illustrate the uneven preparation for college provided by Georgia schools. The challenges of rural districts have been a long-standing concern, but an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis focused on college readiness. It found that rural students are more likely to need remedial help in college and to score lower on the SAT, a predictor of college success.
Reyer's Sprayberry is an academically average suburban high school with abundant resources, while Edalgo's Wilcox is typical of schools, often in rural areas, where students have less access to rigorous academic tracks considered good preparation for college.
"Sometimes I wonder to myself how I would have done at a school with people like that," Edalgo said of valedictorians from schools like Sprayberry. "I would have had to push myself harder."
Most agree that money and location play a role in the disparities between Georgia schools. The AJC analysis specifically shows:
—About 5 percent of students took advanced placement exams in extremely rural areas, compared to more than 20 percent in large suburban districts.
—Rural districts spend about $400 less than others per student. Spending doesn't guarantee success, but rural superintendents say they can't afford educational extras that are standard in suburban schools.
—Teachers don't have the same opportunities for training and development. Those in smaller, poorer districts often face more demands and professional isolation, a barrier to improvement.
College readiness is gaining fresh attention in part because of new policies making it harder for students to play catch-up after high school. Starting this past fall, students who need too much remedial help in reading, writing or math are not allowed to attend schools in the University System of Georgia. Students who need extensive remedial lessons are less likely to earn a degree.
Before the change, the state spent $55 million a year on remedial education.
Georgia has the nation's third-largest rural enrollment and it's among the poorest performing, according to the Rural School and Community Trust, a Washington nonprofit. While a few rural districts perform well, the study found overall Georgia's rural students are among the lowest scorers on national exams and their graduation rate is the nation's second-lowest, behind Louisiana.
The problem has statewide implications. Projections show about 60 percent of jobs by 2020 will require some education beyond high school. Now, 42 percent of Georgia's adults have a college degree or certificate.
Taxpayer dollars from wealthier counties like Cobb are already used to subsidize rural districts with sparse local tax bases in an effort to even out inequities.
"The fabric of metro Atlanta's economy is tightly interwoven with the fabric of rural Georgia's economy," said Jeff Humphreys, director of the University of Georgia's Selig Center for Economic Growth. "If a thread comes loose in one corner of rural Georgia, it will eventually unravel in metro Atlanta."
Dixie Edalgo grew up in Wilcox County, a community about three hours south of Atlanta where the nearest movie theater, Wal-Mart or hospital is 25 minutes away and the average home is worth $56,900.
After learning in ninth grade that she had a shot at being valedictorian, Edalgo stayed on top of her work and watched for students who might sneak up and pass her. There were none.
The shy student attributes her academic success to hard work more than natural intelligence. Yet she said she rarely had homework until her senior year, when honors courses were introduced. Taking advanced placement courses - even online - was never mentioned as an option.
Allyson Reyer tied for valedictorian with two other Sprayberry students after four years of good-natured competition that went on until the final days of school.
"I had all A's all through high school, but even if I had all A's because there are so many AP classes, there was still a chance someone else was going to beat me," she said. "It seems a good chunk of the top of our class got all A's. But it's not enough."
AP courses are among the most popular ways for Georgia students to take college-prep coursework. Yet in 15 rural districts no students took AP exams in 2012. In contrast, 37 percent of students in Decatur City Schools took AP exams, the highest proportion in the state.
In 2005, the state created the Georgia Virtual School to try to offset the course inequities among districts. The school has more than 100 offerings in core academic areas, world languages and AP courses. Some 53 percent of students in virtual courses live in rural districts and 38 percent of those students are taking AP courses.
But districts lose money when students enroll online, an issue the state has taken steps to address. And they have other financial challenges, State Superintendent John Barge said.
"Money is a big issue because some of our rural districts don't have any industry in the county," he said. "With the budget cuts we've had, more responsibility has been put on local districts for things like insurance and health care. That's less money that goes to the classroom."
Georgia requires high schools to offer dual-enrollment opportunities in which students can earn college and high school credit at the same time, according to the Southern Regional Education Board, a research group. But access to those programs is also uneven.
In Tift County, a South Georgia district that federal guidelines classify as a "remote town" rather than a rural area, students can take AP courses or dual-enroll at nearby Moultrie Tech and Abraham Baldwin.
Hotel chains and retail businesses lining I-75 help provide Tift with about $720,000 a month in sales tax revenue that benefits schools. Tift employs adjunct professors who teach subjects such as nursing at the high school. In contrast, the $508,000 a year Wilcox County gets from sales taxes is less than Cobb County collects in two days.
In Wilcox, the closest college is about 30 minutes away. Wiregrass Technical College has a small satellite campus near the high school, but there are too few interested students to create a class. Edalgo said a Wiregrass teacher taught the two college-credit courses she took, keyboarding and speech communication.
Wilcox Superintendent Steve Smith said there aren't enough interested students to pay for a teacher for advanced courses. Using a short-term federal grant, Wilcox introduced honors courses last year, but students must take them in all four core subjects, rather than one subject of choice, because Wilcox can't afford to assign teachers for separate, smaller classes. Teachers say that's tough for students who excel in math but struggle in English.
It's doubtful the district will be able to continue to the honors track once the grant expires, Smith said.
More than 70,000 public college students took remedial classes last year in Georgia.
In 2010, 23 percent of Georgia's rural students needed remedial courses, compared to 19.9 percent of non-rural students. Those figures were more pronounced in extremely rural districts, where 30 percent needed remedial courses compared to 15.8 percent in large suburban districts.
On SAT exams this year, rural students scored about 50 points lower than their peers in non-rural districts, according to an AJC analysis. This gap was wider between extremely rural districts, where the average score was 1,369, and large suburban areas, 1,486.
Edalgo scored 1,540, about 350 points below the average SAT score of 1,887 for a UGA freshman. Edalgo said she doesn't remember counselors or teachers telling her about the university's guaranteed admission policy for all valedictorians. But she said she still would not have considered the school anyway.
Traditionally, data shows rural high school graduates often move on to schools closer to home, many of which are technical colleges. In Wilcox County, interviews with numerous educators and students indicated there are generally lower ambitions for students there than in a suburban area like Cobb County.
Staying close by was important to Edalgo, and she liked the small, well-kept campus at Abraham Baldwin in Tifton. Her parents were thrilled with her decision to stay local. It was the only place she applied.
So far, college is a lot like high school except there's more work. Edalgo, who wants to be a nurse practitioner, says she had to learn how to study and manage her time efficiently. She's getting good grades but has to study for every test, unlike high school where only one subject - anatomy - was truly challenging.
Algebra is the biggest struggle for Edalgo, who says she never got the foundation she needed to succeed in math. In her senior year she took Math 4, but the class didn't have a textbook. Now, she's diligent about completing her homework assignments and retaking tests — when allowed — for a better grade. At the midterm, she had an 85 average.
"In high school, when I got out of school, I would go home and do anything I wanted. If I had work, I would wait until the very last minute and do it," she said. "In college, as soon as I get out of class, I'll go back to my dorm and start doing work. I'll take a break, and then before I go to bed, I'll do more work."
Reyer easily made the transition to confident college student, earning a spot in UGA's honors program. She earned a 2,110 on her SAT and tested out of college-level pre-calculus and calculus, having taken the equivalent courses in high school. There's room in her schedule for courses such as "campus and community leadership" to help her explore how to continue the volunteer work she developed a passion for in high school.
"The time management here is similar to the time management I had to do in AP classes," she said. "We were expected to do our research and work outside of class and come to class for lecture. Some of the AP classes are harder than some of the classes I've taken here."
One limitation some rural districts face is in recruiting and developing teachers. Wilcox County pays beginning teachers the state's base wage of $32,720 a year while Cobb contributes local dollars for a starting salary of $38,959. Besides pay, another obstacle is a community's lack of jobs and amenities.
Nearly a quarter of new teachers hired in rural districts come from the state's non-traditional educator program, meaning they aren't likely to have teaching experience.
Wilcox hired several new teachers last year for a three-year stint, thanks to a federal grant. Four teachers accepted jobs but changed their minds after visiting Wilcox, school officials said.
"It's not like a teacher goes to school and says, 'I can't wait until I grow up and graduate from college so I can go teach in Wilcox County,' " said Valentina Sutton, principal at the middle school. "We have no industry, our tax base is weak. If you have a spouse that is still working, where would they work?"
Educators also battle community apathy toward education that poisons efforts to motivate students, according to interviews with teachers, school leaders and rural students. Some Wilcox residents regard a GED as the same as a high school diploma.
Also, in small districts many teachers are the only one for an entire grade level or subject, making it impossible to gain expertise from colleagues teaching the same subject. Training sessions are often too far away or too expensive to attend.
Wade Burnette is a Wilcox native who coaches baseball at the high school and teaches three grade levels of English, including an honors course.
He is teaching the new, more rigorous Common Core standards this year, which are designed to help get students better prepared for college. But unlike his colleagues in metro Atlanta, he is trying to figure out how to teach the standards at three grade levels instead of one.
"I feel like I am drowning," he said. "There are so many changes and I teach so many classes, it's a challenge, to put it mildly."
Most agree that money and location play a role in the disparities among schools, but there is little consensus on how to solve the problem. Some leaders say localities should raise taxes and contribute more to their districts; other say the state must find a way to fund schools more fairly.
Looking back, Edalgo says she got the best education possible with the resources available in Wilcox.
"Even though I missed out on some opportunities to get ahead, I don't feel I was deprived," Edalgo said. "Wilcox is limited compared to other schools. And every resource they get, they use to the best ability."
Edalgo plans to move back to her hometown or somewhere nearby once she earns her degree, but she's not sure whether she would enroll her children in Wilcox schools. She said she'll evaluate the district when the time comes. But she does hope future students will get access to advanced courses and more rigorous coursework, access she didn't have.
Laura Diamond contributed to this article.
Information from: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, http://www.ajc.com