When Lorena Crespo moved to the Island six years ago, her English was shaky. So she enrolled in an English as a Second Language class taught by Lynn Ditchfield at the high school.
At first, she didn’t know many people here, but her classes in ESL and art education expanded her social circle. And when she wanted to advance her degree in early childhood education, Adult and Community Education of Martha’s Vineyard (ACE MV) offered her that opportunity also.
She’s already signed up for the next course in the sequence, a practicum in early childhood education preschool, which will be offered in the fall.
But that may be her last class at ACE.
Ms. Crespo works as a preschool teacher and raises three boys, so traveling off-Island to attend class isn’t really an option. Since coming to the Island, ACE MV has been the only educational opportunity available to her.
But after five years of service to the community, ACE may not finish the academic year, due to what leaders and supporters of the organization are calling a financial crisis.
The nonprofit has been running on what organizers call heart and soul — low wages, and near-volunteer leadership since day one, a structure that’s not sustainable and will not enable growth, they say. “The crisis is that we can’t function that way,” said founder and director Lynn Ditchfield. The budget of less than $100,000 available to the organization annually has ceased to be able to support the record numbers of enrollees — over 1,050 students last academic year alone.
The only lifeline they have left is to seek public and private funds from the Island community. While ACE does receive moderate funding from groups like the Permanent Endowment and the Martha’s Vineyard Savings Bank, unlike some other continuing education programs, it is not supported by the school system or the local governments. They’d like to model their organization after the Nantucket Community School, which receives permanent supplemental funding from the local government.
“The program itself is a real gem to the Island and it would be a really sad situation if it weren’t able to survive, but unfortunately the financial resources are really poor,” said Harvey John Beth, who has been helping Mrs. Ditchfield with financial management.
The organization has come up with a few scenario budgets for this year: optimal, functional and compromise. The functional budget calls for $140,650 in additional funds, which will pay Mrs. Ditchfield to work as a full-time employee, as well as rent at the office they hope to occupy at the Nathan Mayhew Seminars campus in Vineyard Haven. They are also looking to hire a business manager.
“What we are looking for is the chunk of it that is not going to be covered by revenues and grants,” Ms. Ditchfield said. “We want this to be a right for every adult to have education.”
This month, ACE begins their plea to towns and private donors for support in advance of the early October registration deadline for fall classes.
Continuing education was first offered on the Island in the 1970s by high school English teacher John Morelli. The current iteration of the program has been able to offer credit-bearing classes to students through Cape Cod Community College, Fitchburg State University, and Northeastern University, as well as collaborate with many Island organizations to offer enrichment courses.
The ACE student body is diverse in socioeconomic status and age. Through the program, high schoolers have been able to take classes for credit in high school and college simultaneously, food workers have become certified in ServSafe techniques, and many others have passed their GED tests.
“The nice thing about our classes is that they are very mixed in terms of age, and background, and culture and interests,” Mrs. Ditchfield said. “That means they are very rich, very dynamic.”
The increasing elderly population only heightens demand for ACE, which can help seniors, “keep their minds active as well as their bodies,” Mr. Beth said. “Many of them are relatively well-educated and they are looking for places where they can pursue long-term learning.”
Mr. Beth, a former finance professional, taught courses on the accounting software program QuickBooks to Island bookkeepers through ACE MV. “This is a service that is here for people all year round, not necessarily the wealthiest,” he said. “It’s for people who are looking to sustain themselves, and it’s also for year-rounders who are looking for constructive things to do that keep them busy . . . so that they don’t sit around the house and resort to less productive activities. In some ways [ACE] is helping the social consciousness of the Island. It gives people a venue or an opportunity to do something so they don’t have to go to the bar.”
With adequate financial resources, the possibilities for ACE are limitless, supporters say. Mrs. Ditchfield hopes to offer in-person study groups to those enrolled in online courses, as well as more technology classes. New this year is a five-week Thai cooking course, and genealogy class.
“I think the community is very lucky to have wonderful teachers and wonderful programs because it is very helpful in your daily life, and you can learn a lot,” Ms. Crespo said.
After the fall term, ACE hopes to continue to continue to offer classes this winter and spring, but without extra financial support, they may be unable to do so.
“I really think the Island needs us,” said Susan Strane, chairman of the curriculum committee. “We need them right now, but they also need us.”
ACE will host a course sampling fair on Oct. 1 from 5 to 6:30 p.m. at the regional high school. Visit acemv.org for more information.