By day, hungry adolescents shuffled in and out of the regional high school cafeteria.
But by evening, the space had transformed into a real-life course catalogue, where prospective adult students surveyed the class offerings for this coming year at Adult and Community Education (ACE MV). At the annual course sampling fair, registrants had the opportunity to introduce themselves to instructors and register for classes in the fall, winter and spring semesters.
Several registrants stopped at Pissamai Silarak’s table, where the term sampling was taken quite literally. Ms. Silarak will teach two sections of Thai cooking this semester and some of the dishes her students will learn were available to taste Tuesday night. Wearing a black apron over a collared shirt and tie, she ladled Tom Kha Gai soup into small paper cups. Those who went for the fresh spring rolls were encouraged to dip in her signature sweet and sour peanut sauce. Many returned for a second helping of mee siam, a noodle dish, with compliments for the chef.
Mai — as she was known in her former role as Thai cook at the Ritz Cafe in Oak Bluffs — will teach her five-week class at the Edgartown School kitchen, beginning tomorrow, Oct. 8. “My idea is just to go together with my students and teach them what they want to learn,” she said. Her son, a junior at the Martha's Vineyard Public Charter School, predicts her class will be more comedy show than cooking class. “He said they’ll like it because I’m funny,” she said. Ms. Silarak originally intended to teach only one class, on Tuesdays, but the class filled up so she added a Thursday class.
Despite increasing interest in courses offered through ACE, Tuesday’s course sampling fair may have been the last. Facing a mounting financial crisis, the organization is looking to secure public funding by next fall, or close down operations permanently.
Already, the winter and spring semesters will see a slightly lighter course load than previous years. The essential, credit-bearing courses will remain, but fewer enrichment courses will be offered, said ACE director Lynn Ditchfield, who founded the organization five years ago and has been running it on an essentially volunteer basis since.
Beginning with an appeal to the all-Island selectmen in mid-September, the nonprofit has begun ramping up a campaign to invite public funding in order to ensure sustainability and growth for ACE. Mrs. Ditchfield is asking towns to contribute a combined $110,000, with each town’s individual share determined by a formula based on property values and population. The Dukes County Regional Housing Authority and The Health Care Access program use the formula. Nantucket’s adult education program receives $112,000 from its town, as well as additional funding for administrative and building costs. “They’ve been a wonderful inspiration for us,” Mrs. Ditchfield said.
If public funds are granted, ACE may become a public entity with an attached nonprofit, in the same way that Island libraries have “friends of the library” groups that work to fill private funding gaps. Ideally, “it will really be run by the towns,” Ms. Ditchfield said. “I don’t foresee a lot of change, I just see it being amazing when that happens, when we have a staff there are so many more things we can do.” Funding would allow ACE to pay a full-time employee and hire a business manager. ACE is also looking to make the Nathan Mayhew Seminars campus in Vineyard Haven home base.
Mrs. Ditchfield has letters of support from community members and educators, including Dr. James H. Weiss, schools superintendent, and former high school principal Peg Regan. Despite possessing three advanced degrees, Mrs. Regan wrote that she was still not qualified for many positions on the Island for a lack of proficiency with bookkeeping, Microsoft Office and Adobe Reader — all taught in ACE courses. “Sadly after 37 years of teaching and school administration, I was not qualified for a job as my own secretary!” she wrote.
But Mrs. Ditchfield has more work to do to demonstrate financial support from the six Island towns, a task she finds long and daunting but ultimately worth the effort.
It’s certainly worth it to Scott Goldin. He’s a farmer and a teacher at the charter school who plans to use ACE for enrichment and career advancement purposes this year. He came to the sampling fair to check out the Indian cuisine class, which he may take next semester, just for fun. “Offering educational opportunities to adults is a pretty special thing,” he said of ACE’s programming. “We talk a lot about educating our youth, but it’s hard to do when we’re not educating ourselves. Education is a lifelong process.” While he was there, Mr. Goldin also spent time with a representative from Fitchburg State University, who talked him through his options for pursuing a master’s degree in education, which he says is crucial to his teaching career. The university offers a distance-learning program that involves some online coursework and a once-a-month class on campus.
While many approach ACE to pursue post-secondary courses or to explore a new area of inquiry just for fun, some of the students who rely on ACE have not finished high school. The school offers essential English and essential math, both courses that prepare students for the General Educational Development (GED) tests. Each year, 20 students ranging in age from 17 to 50 years old take the GED test at the regional high school, said test administrator Jeff Agnoli. He’s concerned this year because the test will become totally computerized after December, and he’s not sure whether he’ll be able to offer it on the Island anymore. The new test may include amended content. “We are not sure what it’s going to look like,” Mr. Agnoli said. He urges those considering taking the test to register by Oct. 15.
Visit acemv.org for more information.