Lifelong learning enriches people's lives in tangible and intangible ways.
The community schools movement is based on the view that learning is not limited to the ages of 5 to 22, the hours of 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. or the months of September through May.
Twenty five years ago, community schools came to the Kenai Peninsula. Many Alaska community schools have closed or dwindled since, but in Soldotna the program continues to thrive. This year, it celebrates its silver anniversary with a community get-together on Tuesday, National Community Schools Day.
"The people in the community support it," said George McDowell, a retiree who has been involved with Soldotna Community Schools for two decades. "Community schools provides a valuable recreational resource in this community. It touches a lot of people."
Rosie Reeder, the community schools director, said the program tries to meet community needs.
It offers a wide variety of classes and activities, from practical courses such as first aid and parenting to fun stuff such as Christmas crafts and yoga. Recreation has always been a big component of the offerings. Computer classes have been especially popular in recent years, she said.
Community schools serves all age groups from toddlers to senior citizens.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Soldotna Community Schools director Rosie Reeder works to keep education a life-long affair.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Mary Stenga said the children's opportunities drew her family into the program several years ago.
"It is a good asset to the working parents," she said.
Her daughters have attended the summer camps, where they have enjoyed the fun atmosphere while learning about arts, cooking, outdoor skills and foreign languages. The teachers at the summer arts institute made a special impression on her girls.
"That is probably the highlight of their year," she said.
McDowell said his passion for basketball first led him into the program. Later he began sharing his skill at building custom fishing rods by teaching classes. With his wife, he has taken swing dance classes.
"It's definitely a need in the winter time," he said. "It's a warm place on a dark night."
Reeder agreed that such community support is key.
The program began in 1975 with federal grants passed through the states to school districts. The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District used the funding to hire a coordinator and began offering courses in the spring of 1976. The first coordinator in Soldotna was David McCard. Reeder assumed the post five years ago, she said.
At its peak, community schools had nine sites and 11 coordinators on the Kenai Peninsula. But the grants expired, the state oil boom ended, and state funding for the program dropped.
"We are down from huge amounts of money during the oil boom to just a few thousand," Reeder said.
In 1987, with the peninsula economy in recession and the school budget slashed, the district came to the towns and said the programs could only continue if the cities paid half the costs. Many declined because they had other community activity options or were too small to absorb the costs, she said.
But Soldotna, Homer and Seward opted to take up the challenge and continue.
In Soldotna, the city and the school district share the costs. Some courses, especially public service topics, are free. Others charge modest fees, ranging from $2 to $90, to cover costs in the classes.
Some revenue from the fees goes back to the hosting schools, usually in the form of equipment.
"We bought a lot of stuff for the home economics room (at Soldotna Middle School) last year," Reeder said.
Collaborations have made the program a success, she stressed.
The school district houses the community schools at Soldotna Middle School, where the custodians and other staff assist the program. Classes meet at other schools and buildings in the area as well.
"The beauty of it is we can use the buildings that are already paid for by the taxpayers," she said. "We are invading their space -- and they welcome it."
Professionals, talented residents and visiting experts from Anchorage donate their time for classes and workshops.
Community schools also works closely with entities like Kenai Peninsula College, the Boys and Girls Club of the Kenai Peninsula, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the Cooperative Extension Service.
The college hosts the program's Summer Arts Institute, which began three years ago and had become extremely popular.
"We couldn't do this kind of program without that kind of collaboration," Reeder said.
Some of the other community schools programs include:
n Teen recreation coordinators at Skyview and Soldotna high schools to organize recreational activities.
n Summer camp for children.
n Side-by-side courses for parents and children, such as gymnasium games and kinder music.
n Tours of businesses or community facilities such as the post office.
n Craft fairs.
n "Fortnightlies," held every two weeks at SMS, which provide open gym, dances and other activities targeted to middle school students.
n "Showin' Off the Kids," an annual lip synch talent show for grades kindergarten through grade eight, scheduled in February.
n Partnering with the Boys and Girls Club and the school district to operate the After the Bell enrichment program.
n Managing the schedule for after-school uses of the SMS building.
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