A New Wrinkle in Adult Education
Joe Chuman, Leader
Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County & New York Society for Ethical Culture
The Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County has long had an adult education program open to members and the public. Last spring we tried a novel approach to reach out to new constituencies. We offered public school teachers continuing education credits. Teachers can use such courses for professional advancement by broadening their knowledge and moving up the scale which determines their compensation.
Our plan was made easier by the fact that New Jersey has decentralized the process by which courses for continuing education can be vetted. Currently it can be done by local administrators or department heads rather than by county or state education authorities. In addition, one of our committee members has long worked in local public schools and was able to reach out to the appropriate administrators in our chosen districts in order to promote the course. We also discovered that human rights are explicitly listed as one of the subjects covered in high school social studies curricula, making our offering especially attractive.
We developed a basic informational brochure outlining our five-session course and summarizing my credentials (I am a part-time Professor of Human Rights at Columbia University). We held the course on Tuesday afternoons from 4:30 to 6:00 pm, an unusual time for us but one which we thought would be convenient for teachers coming directly from work. There are 70 municipalities in Bergen County, and most have their own school systems and high schools. We decided to start small and only promote the course in Teaneck, the four districts that are contiguous with it, and to the Bergen County School District. One concern that we had was that by having a religious community like the Bergen Society reach out to public schools, we would be violating the principle of church-state separation. We felt that we were able to offset this by playing up my professorial credentials and playing down my identity as an Ethical Culture Leader. We also charged a minimum registration fee, sufficient to only cover the cost of copying materials. Keeping the registration fee very low we found was also an attractor in that teachers usually pay hundreds of dollars for such courses.
Our experiment was a success. At the time of the initial session, 26 people had registered and were present. Among them were members of the Society, the general public, and eight school teachers, enrolling for continuing education credit. At the course's end, we were pleased to hand out certificates to the teachers indicating the number of hours for which they were present and had participated.
We see this venture as only a beginning. The course caught the attention of a professor of Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Kean College, and he proposed that he and I co-teach a course next season. In addition, Kean College is prepared to pick up the certification of teachers taking the course for continuing education credits, perhaps widening the course's appeal. Given the course's success among those who participated, we are certain that we have something winsome to offer which will progressively expand through word of mouth. Needless to say, it is an approach that can be replicated by almost any Ethical Society.