Adult education on Martha’s Vineyard dates back to the 1970s, but this month the old idea will be expanded and relaunched under the leadership of former high school Spanish teacher Lynn Ditchfield.
Twenty-six courses round out the fall offerings in a program that will include five-week terms in fall, winter and spring. Online course registration for the newly named Adult and Community Education Program (ACE MV) is now under way. “People want skills. The Island is very unique in terms of our needs, in terms of who we are, and in terms of the resources we have,” Mrs. Ditchfield said. “There are a lot of informed, practiced people here without [undergraduate degrees]. There are young people who haven’t been able to leave the Vineyard, to continue learning, because of the expenses of commuting to Cape Cod Community College. And I think a lot of people are coming back to the Island [to live]. You can be here and get intellectual stimulation as well as training.”
Classes begin Oct. 21 and will continue weekday evenings at the high school for five consecutive weeks. Courses range from recreational to practical and include an advanced English language course for non-native speakers, a Microsoft Excel course, yoga and cooking classes. “There is such a need for training, for bringing young people into the environment and providing these classes is economically stimulating,” said Mrs. Ditchfield. “It is keeping the community qualified, vibrant and alive, especially at a time when we don’t have the money coming in and the stimulation of the summer months.”
Adult education began in the 1970s under the direction of the late John Morelli, a high school English teacher. Vineyard Haven artist Barney Zeitz, a student during the program’s startup years, signed up for a welding course so he could frame his work himself. “But instead of just making frames, I went on to do furniture and lighting and, for the last 15 years, sculpture, some of them big public projects,” Mr. Zeitz said. “I probably wouldn’t have gone off-Island to take a course. Now I’m not just a glass artist, but a metal artist as well. It was this idea that you could take something that could really change your life and it really has.”
Four years ago, former assistant superintendent of schools Marge Harris relaunched the program, which had continued over the years in fits and starts. When Mrs. Ditchfield retired from teaching high school this past June, she offered her assistance. “I didn’t want to see [the program] dissipate. In fact, I wanted to see it grow,” she said. An educator for 38 years, Mrs. Ditchfield has trained teachers and taught adults in addition to high school students. “There is something very unique about teaching adults,” she said. “They are motivated to be in the classroom. It is really charming for a teacher.”
This fall, 19 instructors — some trained as teachers, some not — will teach 26 classes. Teachers include Paul Pimental of the Vineyard Energy Project, high school art teacher Chris Baer and West Tisbury musician Willy Mason. A five-week winter term will begin in January and a spring term will start in March. Mrs. Ditchfield hopes to offer 30 classes each term and has more plans for the future, including a General Education Development (GED) course and perhaps even a community college with a campus spanning the high school, Martha’s Vineyard Community Services and, upon its completion, the YMCA. “Honey, there’s no stopping us,” Mrs. Ditchfield said with a smile in her voice.
One thing which could slow her down is funding; right now there is none. But there is plenty of community support. The school system has donated classroom space and the YMCA created the Web site (acemv.org). An advisory council includes representatives from a number of Island organizations including Felix Neck, Community Services, the public schools and Featherstone Center for the Arts. “We are doing this in partnership with other organizations,” Mrs. Ditchfield said. “The goal is to unify all the Island education programs and bring it to the community.” Program fees range from $5 for a one-time lecture on energy to $125 for the five-week classes in playwriting, bioethics and Spanish and will cover the costs of subcontracting teachers and paying Mrs. Ditchfield, who is the program’s sole full-time paid employee.
Mrs. Ditchfield is in the process of applying for grants and is looking to other communities for guidance, beginning with Nantucket. The Nantucket Community School offers up to 60 adult education courses each fall, winter and spring. Offerings include sewing and cooking as well as bookkeeping classes and nurse training workshops. “Because we are an island, we try to focus on workforce skills,” director Pauline Proch said. The school, which also includes an early education program and a community pool, operates from the Nantucket High School. When the town built the school in the 1970s, residents voted to use the space as a community center after school hours. “The building is far from empty at night. It’s a hub of activity for the town,” Mrs. Proch said. The Vineyard regional high school is used in a similar manner.
The majority of participants in the Nantucket program are between the ages of 25 and 50; about a quarter are elderly, Mrs. Proch said. On-site child care is offered on designated weeknights and individual class sizes range from 12 to 20 students. Two paid coordinators run the program, which has a $170,000 operating budget. Roughly 12 per cent of the budget comes from town-appropriated money. The program relies on fees, but no grants to fund the remainder.
Ever humble, Mrs. Ditchfield is quick to note that she is not reinventing the wheel for adult education on the Vineyard. “These are things people have initiated already,” she said. “It’s just an issue of getting everything aligned and I feel like the timing is there. There is an economic need and a need for training. I think we’re emerging.”