By Sarah Beth Costello
The article was featured on the Elon University Faculty and Staff newsletter Website, @Elon: Click here
In 2006, Cummings High School – located a mere six miles from Elon’s campus – was on the verge of closure, as overall student performance and achievements reached record lows. President Leo M. Lambert felt compelled to act, so he called in Deborah Long, at the time chair of Elon’s Department of Education.
“The president asked me if I’d be interested in being the faculty administrative fellow and assistant to the president,” says Long. “He wanted me to do two things: establish a college access program for Alamance County high school students and work with Cummings High School.
“(The possible closure) was probably one of the best things to happen to Cummings, because it forced people to pay attention. The threat served as the catalyst for the Elon Academy.”
Long directs the Academy, a program for area high-school students who have either no family history of college attendance or come from low-income homes. The program is open to all high-school freshmen in Alamance County who meet admissions criteria and demonstrate academic promise.
Long was a natural choice to lead the Elon Academy based on her service to Elon and her leadership of the education department. Before coming to Elon in 1996, Long served as an assistant professor at Lyon College in Batesville, Ark. At Elon, she also was an assistant professor until 2002, when she became education department chair.
Education wasn’t always the field of choice for Long; she studied psychology during her undergraduate years at Colby College in Maine. After graduating, she moved to North Carolina, where she worked as a waitress for one year. While working, she heard about Teachers Corp, a program that provided stipends and tuition reimbursement to individuals with undergraduate liberal arts degrees, encouraging them to become teachers in low-income schools. Long chose to join.
“I didn’t sent out to be a teacher, but I fell in love with education and working with students who faced challenges,” she says. “I became passionate about it.”
Long’s teaching career began in Durham, N.C., where she taught at East End Elementary School. She recalls the atmosphere was challenging, but the work was meaningful, and it prepared her for her future work with Elon Academy.
“Sometimes students aren’t doing well (in school) because they haven’t found something to be passionate about and have lost hope,” she says. “We give them hope and something to strive for – something that’s attainable.”
Shaping students’ futures
Elon Academy students must make a three-year commitment to the program, which offers a variety of academic experiences designed to prepare them for college. Each summer, the students live on Elon’s campus for one month, taking core classes,and preparing for the SAT and ACT tests as well as college and scholarship applications. During the school year, students and parents meet every Saturday to continue various preparation courses, and students are expected to pursue honors and Advanced Placement courses in their studies whenever possible.
The experience is transformative, Long says, as she shares the story of one student who took an MTV 101 course during the summer session and discovered a passion for film and video editing. He started a club at his school and now wants to major in communications in college. This is a student, Long says, who intended to leave high school and work in construction as a career, and his experience in Elon Academy has completely changed his future goals.
Darris Means ’05, assistant director of Elon Academy, says working with Long has been transformative for him, too.
“Her energy, intelligence and commitment drive me to strive harder in my professional life,” he says. “She’s a team player, and she’s all about collaboration. I feel like her belief in collaboration has led to some remarkable things in Alamance County.”
With Elon Academy set to graduate its first class of students this spring, Long says she hopes to expand the goals of the program, perhaps to include younger students from Alamance County and surrounding areas.
“I love it,” she says of Elon Academy. “I’ve always been drawn to working with under-served students and families. When the opportunity came along to lead the Elon Academy, it felt really right.”