Adult community classes ensure learning doesn't end at graduation
Amanda Petrovich of Fox Chapel helps Stephen J. Grottenthaler, executive chef of Pittsburgh Field Club, in a cooking class at Fox Chapel Area High School.
Harshita Gurnani, center, of Fox Chapel takes part in a Zumba class offered by the adult education program at Fox Chapel Area High School.
Marian Luisi, foreground, instructs a yoga class as part of the adult continuing education classes offered at Mt. Lebanon High School.
Share with others:
Classroom lights burn bright into the night several days a week in Fox Chapel Area and Mt. Lebanon high schools, where learning and laughter continue long after the day students have gone home.
Desks, work tables, kitchens, swimming pools and gymnasiums in the schools are filled with adults who pay to attend night classes -- not because they are required to learn but because they want to learn.
An average of 1,400 to 1,800 enroll each year in 80 to 90 classes offered in adult education programs in Fox Chapel Area, and nearly 1,300 participate in 40 to 45 classes in Mt. Lebanon.
In both cases, the courses are open to adults who live outside the district, with their fees slightly higher than the tuition paid by residents. Courses are noncredit, meaning they lead to no degree, with the exception of classes in Fox Chapel Area that help adults earn high school diplomas.
The age of participants ranges from early 20s to senior citizens.
Perennial favorites include watercolor painting and other crafts, cooking and gardening. Fitness classes are always filled, including swimming, basketball, dance and yoga. The availability of some fitness classes is linked to trends, with the current "in" class being Zumba -- a dance and exercise program performed to an energetic Latin beat.
Adults seeking more cerebral courses can pick from an array of foreign languages and classes such as Windows to Ireland in Mt. Lebanon.
Course offerings in both districts are open to suggestions from instructors who may wish to teach a certain course, such as the Clutter and Time Management course offered in Fox Chapel Area. If people sign up, it stays in the curriculum.
The price is right. The fee for an eight-week Zumba course in Fox Chapel Area, for example, is $40 for residents and $45 for nonresidents. Teachers are paid, but some donate their time.
The adult education programs in both districts don't cost taxpayers a dime.
Filling in the gap for school districts that don't offer night classes is the Community College of Allegheny County. Last year, more than 18,500 adults registered for more than 3,000 noncredit classes at four campuses and five centers throughout Allegheny County as well as a center in Washington County.
Many community college classes are held in public school buildings.
The adult education program is celebrating its 50th anniversary in the district, which covers Aspinwall, Blawnox, Fox Chapel, O'Hara, Indiana Township and Sharpsburg. The program is registered as a private nonprofit governed by an unpaid board of directors made up of district residents.
The program started with eight classes in 1962 because residents asked for it, said Susan Goodwin, executive director of the program. Interest and enrollment have steadily grown.
Celeste Janosko of O'Hara started taking classes, such as gardening, in the early 1980s. "I was always coming up with ideas for more classes," she said, and in 1984 the other directors added her to the board.
"I think we are very lucky the school district has allowed us to use the facilities so we have been able to keep prices very reasonable," said Mrs. Janosko, a science teacher who taught in Fox Chapel Area and now teaches at Shadyside Academy. "So many people participate, and so many people donate their time."
Classes change as times change, noted board member and retired business education teacher Nancy Rofey. Shorthand and transcription dictation were offered in the 1970s, then later a progression of tech courses from Word Processing for Beginners to Design Your Own Front Page Website.
Foreign language and cooking classes are "hallmarks" of the program, Mrs. Goodwin said.
"One of my board members was so proud to overhear a local restaurant worker say to a customer, 'I can't believe I'm able to afford a course to learn Chinese,' " Mrs. Goodwin said. "That's the kind of thing that tells me we're fulfilling our educational mission to the community."
She said she tries to make sure two cooking classes are offered each semester to meet student demand.
Hamsini Rajgopal of Fox Chapel, who has been teaching Indian cooking classes for 14 years, is flattered that her classes are always full with 25 students.
"They watch me cook from scratch, and I give them recipes. I also give them a touch of history" about the regions of India where the recipes originate, she said.
She is the human resources director at the West Jefferson Hills School District and has just finished filling in as that district's acting superintendent for a year.
Fox Chapel Area's adult education program is important, she said, because "learning never stops. It's important to foster that lifelong love for learning. And [I] need to thank the adult education organization for giving me the opportunity to showcase my culture."
Since its inception, the program has donated more than $30,000 to the district for computer equipment, art supplies and equipment for home economics and fitness programs.
Tuition fees range from $15-$45 for a one-night class to $25-$55 for courses that are for four to 10 weeks. The current semester ends next month, and the winter semester starts in mid-February.
Tom Steffora has been involved with the program for 25 years and has been program coordinator for the past 15, but the district is unable to document exactly when the program began.
"We think the adult classes go back to the 1930s," said Mr. Steffora, who taught special education in the Mt. Lebanon School District for 35 years, retiring in June. "This is something the district has been proactively providing for a long time."
"You see many of the same faces again and again," he said, referring to teachers and students in the program.
Enrollment is down this semester because construction of the new high school has eliminated many parking spaces. "But they'll be back," he said.
On a recent evening, five women filed into a high school art room where Jean Benson of Bethel Park is teaching tole painting. The veteran student-artist is Janet Jordan, a retired secretary who has been taking classes from Ms. Benson since 1976.
Although Ms. Jordan's Mt. Lebanon apartment "is wall to wall paintings," she continues to take classes from Ms. Benson because "she's awesome" and has become a good friend.
Tole painting is painting with oil on metal or wood, the instructor explained. At the first class, students started with paper and paints supplied by the teacher. Their first assignment was fruit.
"Some of these girls have never taken an art class, yet their apples look like apples and their strawberries look like strawberries," Ms. Benson said.
For the second class, they'll need to bring their own supplies.
Advice from the teacher includes: "Wear old clothes to class. You can't get oil paint out of clothes."
On another night in that same room, eight women gathered for a watercolor class taught by Gail Bodkin, who has taught in the adult program for decades.
A single mother, she raised her four now-grown children in Mt. Lebanon by teaching art classes anywhere she could, including lunch-hour classes at corporations that she called Lunch, Learn and Diet.
"CEOs and company presidents took my classes," she said. "I can take anybody and turn them into a painter. I am turning people on to life."
She still teaches somewhere almost every day of the week, and she enjoys teaching art because "it makes people happy."
Her advice to students includes telling them that stores will try to sell them "all kinds of stuff ... that you don't really need." She hands out a list of supplies, including paint, that cost $25 to $40. And she tells them that watercolor paint can be removed from clothes.
Classes run nine-12 weeks, and tuition is $35-$85. Some one-night classes are held. The semester ends in December, and the next one begins in January.
Noncredit courses for adults go back to the mid-1960s when CCAC began.
"We try to do a little bit for everybody," said Larry Furlong, director of community education. "We have business classes and computer classes, personal enrichment plus classes that are just fun. Our biggest classes are fitness classes, which run year-round. Certain classes and instructors get a following and people keep coming back. Lifelong learners are a very dedicated group."
Most classes are offered at the four CCAC campuses -- Allegheny on the North Side, Boyce in Monroeville, North in McCandless and South in West Mifflin -- and the at the centers in Homewood-Brushton, Braddock Hills, West Hills in North Fayette, Bethel Park and Washington County.
The college also rents space in some school districts that don't offer adult education programs, such as Independence Middle School in Bethel Park.
"We're not in as many public schools as we used to be in," Mr. Furlong said. "I wish we could be in more communities but, economically, we cannot be in everybody's backyard."
Mr. Furlong said CCAC strives to break even financially in community education "and to generate some income to keep all the courses."
Fees for most classes are $25 to $99. Current language classes are $125. The next semester starts in January.
Mr. Steffora in Mt. Lebanon said that from time to time he gets inquiries from officials in other school districts who are thinking about starting their own adult education programs, but he has not seen any of them come to fruition.
Ms. Rajgopal is so impressed with the Fox Chapel Area program that she is working to get adult education into the West Jefferson Hills School District, where she works, and hopes a program could be in place in by the end of this school year. She's seeking input from residents about the kinds of courses they would like to take, and she's looking for pitches from people who would like to teach a course.
"I think this is important," she said. "It's what schools should be doing -- educating students to be lifelong learners."
First Published October 25, 2012 12:00 am