Focus of Adult Ed program is now more work than play

By Gabriel Blodgett | Sep 10, 2019
Photo by: Gabriel Blodgett Left to right, Five Town CSD Adult and Community Education Director David Watts, Program Assistant Elyse Socker and former Director Bob Curran at Camden Hills Regional High School

Rockport — When Bob Curran was asked to start the Adult and Community Education program at Camden-Rockport High School in 1969, he viewed his responsibility above all as bringing the community together.

At the time, he said, the atmosphere surrounding education in the state was full of uncertainty because of redistricting, loss of school identities and curriculum changes. Curran had previously worked as principal in Waldo County’s District 3, and found that the best way to overcome many of these issues was to increase community involvement. He began renovating a dilapidated gym with students, parents and local companies, a project that helped break down some of the tension between residents of different towns and chip away at a general sense of distrust toward the district.

Curran said the experience taught him “what you can do if people believe you care,” a lesson that he carried with him and which became “a big part of the community education concept and what we did in Rockport.”

After serving as interim principal of the newly formed Camden-Rockport High School during a contentious time -- he recalled having four school board meetings in a single week -- he was put in charge of the new Adult and Community Education program with the goal of increasing community access to the school.

The first semester included courses in art, ceramics, woodworking, typewriting, modern math for parents, sewing and diploma courses. When the University of Maine showed interest in expanding to the area, Curran said, the program began offering continuing education classes as well.

Curran said it “wasn’t long before we were running [classes] four nights a week.”

A 1971 issue of the Camden Herald advertises fall programs including the first offering of Computer Math with the description “John Sims will give up on the new math and teach the impossible, computer math.” The program also offered Small Business Office Procedures (bookkeeping, filing, communications) and Foundation of Modern American Thought: “A great chance to update oneself on the ideas of the day.”

While certain aspects, like small-business classes and high school equivalency programs -- HiSET, formerly GED -- have remained pillars of the program, in the 50 years since its inception, the course offerings have expanded to include more than 130 live courses and more than 400 online classes. The emphasis on bringing in the community, however, has remained a major part of the vision of the Adult and Community Ed program.

When Tim Dresser took over as director of the program in 2003, he said his instructions from the school board were to “make [the program] as busy as possible.”

Camden Hills Regional High School had been pitched to taxpayers in part as a community center, and that meant finding more ways to get adults, not just students, from the five towns into the new facilities.

Dresser said he built on the vision of former Director Jeannie Dissette and during his tenure the program grew from 40 to 50 classes to more than 150 while expanding opportunities for workforce development and vocational training. “I got involved with the community and people with talents came out of nowhere,” he said.

The growth was the result of a combination of listening to the public regarding what classes they wanted and finding talented people interested in teaching and helping them translate their expertise into a curriculum.

Under new Director David Watts, who succeeded Dresser in 2018, the options for “enrichment” programs have continued to grow and include classes ranging from Knitting Socks to Magic Lessons, Pickleball to Cooking with Wild Mushrooms, and language classes in Japanese, Spanish, Italian and American Sign Language.

The program also held a summer session for the first time in 2019, with classes in outdoor adventure, language and painting; topics that people expressed interest in through surveys over the winter.

Program Assistant Elyse Socker said the program continually receives suggestions for new courses and part of her job is reaching out to the community to find willing teachers.

Further expansion of programs that increase access to the workforce has been a main point of emphasis for Watts. While the program has always kept in touch with local employers to determine their workforce needs, Watts has worked to increase communication with local businesses and the chamber of commerce to understand what classes will be most helpful in making students more employable.

Adult Ed has expanded its Certified Nursing Assistant program in response to the needs of Genesis Healthcare, which operates Windward Gardens, and created training opportunities for jobs based on discussions with the Knox County Homeless Coalition.

This expansion has been driven in part by the federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act of 2014, which requires more strategic alignment of workforce development programs with the needs of employers and calls for increased regional collaboration.

This has led to the creation of Midcoast Adult Education Hub 7, a collaboration of seven adult and community education programs in Sagadahoc, Lincoln, Waldo and Knox counties, sanctioned by the state Department of Education, to offer classes that the programs might not be able to sustain individually.

Watts said he is also focused on creating more on-site and fewer online programs, which he said can lack the local support to keep people engaged.

While HiSET and workforce development classes can be funded with state and federal money and grants, enrichment programs, those deemed not to make students more employable, have to be self-sustaining.

“I still want to make everything available,” said Watts, but because of the program’s limited budget -- $407,369 for the 2019-2020 school year, compared to $12,544,433 for the high school -- and increased competition among programs for grants, some of the courses have increased in cost in recent years.

With an age range of 16 to 63 in academic and workforce programs -- the numbers skew higher for enrichment -- and multiple points of entry and exit, adult and community education had more than 2,000 people enrolled in classes last year. Still, Curran believes not everyone is aware of the potential of community education.

Socker said the program is always looking for volunteer tutors for HiSET and conversation partners for English as a second language students. Anyone wishing to learn more or take a class can visit fivetowns.maineadulted.org.

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