Seven students sit around a table. Down the middle, there’s a line of glass bottles, vases and bowls on top of brightly colored paper.
The students — enrolled in a four-week acrylic-painting class taught by continuing-education teacher Susan Schneider — sketch and then begin painting the still life in front of them.
Schneider’s career as a batik painter reaches back to the 1970s. She started teaching continuing education in London and now teaches throughout Seattle at retirement homes, senior centers, for local parks and recreation and for continuing education at North Seattle Community College (NSCC).
Schneider’s students vary in skill level, but most are beginners.
“It’s mostly people who are just starting out [or] haven’t painted in 40 years,” she said. “[They] just retired and realized, ‘Gee, now I can finally do what I’ve always wanted to do.’”
Schneider focuses her class more on proper materials and techniques than actually producing art. “There’s no pressure there; they’re more for fun and relaxation,” she said. “But most of my students want to seriously learn or improve.”
All three of Seattle’s community colleges offer continuing-education classes. Most are noncredit: They can’t be counted toward a degree and often do not follow a traditional academic format.
People take the classes for their “intrinsic value,” said Elysse Reyna, program coordinator for continuing education at NSCC. Continuing-education classes are “geared toward lifelong learners,” she said. Students range in age from 18 to 100.
A wide range of offerings
Continuing education classes are held during the day, in the evening and on weekends. Most happen on campus, but some, like a North Seattle cooking class held in a catering kitchen, require specific, off-campus spaces.
The North Seattle program emphasizes arts-related classes, Reyna said, ranging from ceramics and writing to music and language. They also have classes for small-business owners and offer computer-skill-based classes.
Laura Matson, manager of Lifelong Learning at South Seattle Community College (SSCC) noted that, in addition to noncredit classes, South Seattle has continuing-education units, including classes for teachers to maintain their licenses.
Even though fall is its busiest time at SSCC, summer gives the college a chance to offer classes that it can’t the rest of the year, Matson said, citing its outdoor tai chi class as a prime example.
The Seattle Central Community College (SCCC) program offers some certificate-based classes in its continuing-education program. Bookkeeping, paralegal, AutoCAD and nutritional therapy are some of its most popular certificate programs, according to SCCC director Jeff West.
Continuing education classes, with little-to-no state funding, rely on student class fees to stay afloat. Teachers are either hired by the continuing-education program or paid on contract. Federal financial aid is not an option.
Student fees usually depend on how long a class lasts, Reyna said, adding that an average class price is around $100. Some run up to eight weeks; one-time classes might last a few hours.
Certificate-based programs at SCCC cost more, with its nine-month nutritional-therapy program totaling $3,900, West said. But its other traditional continuing-education classes cost the same as the other community colleges.
A sandbox of discovery
At SCCC, West said its students often already have a degree and the time and disposable income to take a class on the side.
Classroom demographics vary. Reyna noted that at NSCC, students are usually in their 30s and are looking for a creative outlet, but most are older.
“They’re retired, and they’re looking for something to keep their brains sharp,” she said. “It’s a way to connect with people outside the home.”
At SSCC, the average age for classes is 40 and older, but its trying to get a younger audience, Matson said: “I love when the classes are a mix of generations because each person has something to share and something to learn.”
For Reyna, the sense of discovery is significant. “I think of continuing education as a big sandbox of discovery [that] people can play in,” she said.
She said many of the teachers have overcome hardship, bringing their experiences to the classroom.
“I think that can translate to inspiration for our students because I think a lot of students have been out of class for a while and so having those instructors give them inspiration can soothe their anxiety,” Reyna said.
There’s a sense of community in continuing education, too, Matson noted: “You’re often taking classes with your neighbors, and often instructors are also neighbors.”
Members of the staff at North Seattle often attend the classes and write about their experience for the program’s blog. Reyna said after she attends classes she feels pumped up by the “contagious” enthusiasm from the students and instructors.
“I’ve been really impressed by the heart for learning that our teachers and students have,” she said.
Matson also attends continuing education classes, saying: “I’m a kid in a candy store.”
She took a welding class, taught by a woman, with mostly female students. “Welding was something I never imagined I could do,” she said. “Within two days, I made a beautiful garden sculpture.”
For more information on classes, visit the schools’ websites: NSCC, www.learnatnorth.org; SCCC, www.learnatcentral.org; and SSCC, www.learnatsouth.org.
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