A Neighborhood Improvement Journal - Summer 2017

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Starting and Managing Neighborhood Classes

 

By Fred Gillette

 

 

 

With the sounds of 40’s music and the rhythmic shuffling of shoes on hardwood floors, the old community center building comes alive with the practice and process of education.  Not having done anything like this since my high school social dancing class, I’m nervous and feeling awkward and wondering if I should have taken the Gardening In the Fog class instead. But then, after a few less-than-comfortable moments, I’m actually starting to enjoy this!  What’s more, in the midst of it all, I’m engaging in this out-of-body experience and sensing that something exceptionally uplifting is happening here, beyond just my re-learning the foxtrot.  I’m with my neighbors and we’re doing things that we value and enjoy. What’s more, we’re making new acquaintances and interacting in a friendly, near-our-homes venue. This is what education should be, at least some of the time.

 

 

 

The feeling was nicely replicated a few weeks later, sitting in our neighborhood history teacher’s second floor apartment, learning about and pouring over photos of the old days of the neighborhood, while seeing today’s neighborhood go through its motions just outside the window.

 

In some of my favorite college classes, I noticed that there were usually several things going on besides the imparting of knowledge.  Human connections were being made; a sense of common purpose would often emerge.  At times like that, it’s very obvious how good the learning experience can be. Of course, most of my time in college, such insights were absent, or at least tardy - especially as the pressure to produce desirable, measurable outcomes overwhelmed me.  But in ungraded neighborhood classes, almost all the pressure is off both teacher and student. We are free to absorb all sorts of additional benefits, far beyond those of a good college class. It would have been a perfectly adequate educational experience if a neighborhood class taught me just what I wanted to learn, but attending an inexpensive, ungraded, interesting class in my own neighborhood went way beyond that.  By any measure, these were real community-building experiences. People were getting to know their neighbors in a supportive, non-threatening environment.  These are people who may then come together later to work on other local ventures and neighborhood projects.  Or maybe they’ll further enhance the community just by greeting a former classmate, one whom they would not have otherwise known, on the street.

 

Across the county, community education projects abound.  And you can help make them happen in your own neighborhood.

 

 

 

 

Who can do this?

 

Promoting community classes usually requires the energies of more than one person.  Ideally, it is something that should be undertaken by a neighborhood organization, or a subcommittee thereof. The jobs of planning, organizing, promoting, evaluating and revising should be shared among a group.  Perhaps if only one class is being considered, a single person could take this on alone. But even then, it can become somewhat burdensome. Besides, you would be missing out on the fun of working on a valuable neighborhood project with people of similar interests.  But should there either be several individuals involved or just yourself, studying the following procedural steps may serve as a partial, potential guideline for assignment of duties.

 

 

Setting your goals and measurable objectives

 

One of the most difficult things to deal with, after starting a project, is assessing whether it is doing what you want it to.  Although seldom practiced, it’s always best to have very specific goals defined as well as a list of desirable outcomes that are quantifiable and can stand as a measure of your success.  This could be a simple count of actual vs. anticipated students. Beyond that, it could include responses to post-class surveying on the value of the experience. This then leads to a slightly easier process of arriving at conclusions as to whether you really want to keep doing this.  As suggested earlier, neighborhood-based classes can do much more than educate. Perhaps your stated goals can reflect this.  I do have my own undetectable biases, and although I can’t ensure that you will develop objectives reflecting ambitions of community-building, I might be tempted to subtly suggest that you do so.  And, I will be coming around to check your work.

 

 

 

Assessing potential class offerings

 

The best starting points are represented by your likely students. Since these classes are intended to serve a diversity of people as broad as those served by a neighborhood organization, it would be good to poll the members of the current, general neighborhood organization or improvement club. If there is no such functioning organization, polling can be done at meetings or through newsletters of existing special interest groups such as business organizations, churches or social service organizations.  The poll can and should be very simple.  State that general-interest classes in the neighborhood are being organized and that you would like suggestions for class subject matter.  Perhaps include examples from other neighborhoods.  If you are working within an existing neighborhood organization, your own members or members of a committee undertaking this project will likely have some of their own ideas.

 

Among subject areas that have been successfully undertaken in other neighborhoods or have been under serious consideration are:

 

            Neighborhood history

            Crafts

            Recreation-related

            Skills training

            Job finding and preparation

            Financial planning

            Home shopping and purchase

            Child development and psychology/parenting

            Gardening

            Life saving

            Cooking and nutrition

            Cinema study

            Home maintenance

           

One of the best benefits of creating classes in your neighborhood is the opportunity to promote some class or educational experience that you, the organizers, would like to see.  Chances are, there are others who will appreciate them too. 

 

 

 

 

Structures and size considerations

 

The most obvious limitations on class size will be the number of people enrolling by a pre-defined deadline and the size of the room or venue available for the class meetings.  Also, the teacher may prefer a particular limit.  Generally, class sizes over 15 begin to see serious limitations in the quality of class participation.  A way to guarantee a large amount of participation and active discussion and interaction is the inclusion of a significant amount of small group work.  The teacher may give an introductory coverage of the topics, but then divide the class into groups of 4-6 persons, giving them the assignment of discussing the topic in more depth, expressing opinion, perhaps researching the topic, gathering data or practicing a newly acquired skill. The group may even be asked to report their experiences, conclusions, or findings to the larger group. The experience of interacting with a handful of people also promotes deeper connections among the participants.  Every couple of weeks the group memberships could be shuffled, allowing class members to eventually connect with all other members of the class.  The teacher could thus be freed to interact more intimately with the various groups.

 

A great sense of further community involvement can be instilled by encouraging your teachers to provide field trip opportunities, collecting data and observations together out in the neighborhood at agreed upon times, often outside of normal class meeting times.

 

Although adult classes within the contexts of community colleges and adult school often fall into the organizational patterns of large school systems, meeting for 12-16 week terms, a much shorter term duration may be most successful for a neighborhood class.  For one thing, potential class members may be distrustful of this unfamiliar form of education and may prefer the caution inherent in a short duration commitment.  Also, it’s a chance for students to dabble in the subject matter without feeling the experience to be a failure if they aren’t really as interested in comparative religious studies as they thought they’d be.  By breaking the students’ up-front costs down into several smaller pieces, there’s a far smaller sense of risk if any of a number of other reasons make this class not seem right for them.  It is just as easy to design several small modules as it is to design one large module.  When our own neighborhood organization experimented with classes, we found that 6 week modules were ideal. But various other approaches have good potential. Another presentation model was having a one-time (neighborhood history) presentation and offering a more in-depth 6 week class as a follow up.  The first meeting was free, and had a huge turnout. But there were enough people willing to go further to make the follow-up fee-based class viable.

 

 

Promotion 

 

 

 

If you are doing this through a neighborhood organization, you probably have a web site or newsletter in which you can announce the class and provide registration forms.  Your email list of membership can certainly be justifiably used for this purpose.  The physical size of the neighborhood may also make door to door flyer delivery practical.  A couple of people could cover an average neighborhood in an afternoon.  A general neighborhood newsletter could also promote your classes in its “events” section.  Other organizations, clubs, senior groups and churches within the neighborhood may be willing to list your classes in their periodical postings or newsletters. 

 

A recent network newscast feature noted that many seniors, upon retirement, are moving to “college towns” because of the intellectual stimulation possible through continuing educational experiences. But adults face certain restrictions, in some locales, about signing up for classes that are created primarily for students with degree objectives.  Further complicating things, costs, convenience, and length of commitment are deterrents for many adults shopping for classes.  The overriding reality to keep in mind is that many people are already very receptive to the idea of taking adult classes and don’t need to be sold on the idea. They just need to be informed of their availability, in a form that meets their needs and objectives.

 

 

Finding teachers

 

Once you have identified your subject matter, it is not difficult to find teachers.  Local colleges usually have an abundance of part-time teachers in your areas of interest that would be willing to take on a neighborhood class.  You may not be able to pay the going rates for professional educators, but you should be able to charge sufficient student fees to allow payment of $60-80 and hour.  Many teachers wanting to supplement a part time teaching income would find this fair and sufficient. If your classes involve skills or crafts that already are practiced at existing local businesses, someone involved with that business may be willing to take on a teaching role with you.  For example, someone from the local yarn shop might be interested in running a crochet class or a mechanic from a local garage might teach about basic auto care and trouble shooting.  In your agreement with the teacher, you would have to indicate that a particular number of students must sign up for the class to “go”, otherwise you would be offering the class at a loss.  This kind of arrangement will not seem unreasonable to anyone with teaching experience.  You’ll have to set that limit, based on student fees charged, facilities fees, prorated promotion costs and other possible expenses you may incurr.  For instance, if you charge 15 students $80 each for a two hour class that meets 6 times, you will have collected $1200.  Paying the teacher $70 per hour for 12 class hours means that you are paying them a total of $840, leaving you $360 for the facility rental and other expenses.  You might try a system of offering a teacher a smaller minimum payment plus a split of any profits over your break-even point. A teacher who is also marketing a product or service, such as the local yarn shop proprietor or a financial planner or a realty agent, might be willing to offer a class for a minimal fee. Although your objective is not likely to turn a profit, you may be able to direct any profits from a particularly successful class to subsidize a less popular class.

           

 

 

 

Site/facilities requisites and consideration

 

There are a number of site possibilities, especially if your organization is a non-profit.  Libraries and churches will often rent out meeting rooms, but some will rent only to non-profits.  Such an organization may even be willing to provide the space.  Some restaurants have meeting rooms that they’ll let you use without charge on the expectation that they will sell you food and drinks.  A police station in one of my old neighborhoods had a room available free to community groups.

 

A possible difficulty is that some such organizations require that users have liability insurance.  This can run several hundred dollars a year and be an ultimate budget buster, unless you have so many successful classes that you can justifiably spread the expense around. 

 

 

Evaluation

 

Presumably, a prime evaluation criterion is built into the project design.  If you don’t get enough students signing up, you now know that there is a problem, probably with fees or subject matter.  But there may be other, more difficult to assess factors, such as problems with the venue and comfort issues, competency of the teacher, inconvenience of meeting times.  For data on the widest possible number of important variables you will have to query your users, and occasionally your potential users.  Students should either be provided with a form on the last class meeting or contacted by way of a follow-up email query in which they are asked the question: how might the class be improved?  Just asking that one question is usually sufficient, and almost always provides thoughtful, useful responses.  But to know why people aren’t signing up in the first place, you will have to go back to the general community. You would need to ask again what they would like to see in classes and perhaps try to get more specifics on the other factors that you think may be critical, such as meeting times, costs, and venues.

 

This data will then form the basis of your planning sessions for future such endeavors, allowing you to make the final judgment on whether you should continue doing this.

  

 

         

Even though not all of your classes will “go” and not all of your experiences will be positive, you will likely have put on a few classes that truly delight and enrich the participants. The effects of what you do to advance neighborhood education and community development are more profound than many will at first appreciate. Your neighborhood gardening or photography class may not seem to have the impact or influence of a rezoning meeting or a crime fighting meeting. But it easily can.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

tip jarNeighborhood Life depends on your financial support.