Community School lessons learned

Bridge instructor Betty Geartheart Maddeford is just one of the South Whidbey Community School teachers and students who come back year-after-year to participate in the Community School
Bridge instructor Betty Geartheart Maddeford is just one of the South Whidbey Community School teachers and students who come back year-after-year to participate in the Community School's biannual classes
— image credit: Cynthia Woolbright

While school has been in session for months in South Whidbey classrooms, there's one more school that's about to open its doors of opportunity.

Didn't know another one existed?

It's been around for 30 years.

News of the school's upcoming lessons should arrive in the mail any day now. The South Whidbey Community School will soon be in session.

The South Whidbey Community School is South Whidbey's Life-Long Learning program sponsored by the South Whidbey School District.

And while you won't find a building labeled "South Whidbey Community School," it doesn't mean that the Community School doesn't have a home. Since 1975 the Community School has offered enrichment classes to thousands of South End residents.

As in years past, a variety of classes will be offered during this fall's session. People can learn how to cook savory Szechuan dishes, make a yard waste and worm composting bins, plan out wills, learn how to frame pictures, or improve your communication to get the most out of life. Learn a new language or maybe even take Ms. Betty's famous bridge class.

Whatever the lesson people want to learn, the South Whidbey Community School wants to be there to offer it.

"I'd hate to lose it. Everything's gotten so serious in life and this is one of the few places where you can learn something new from your neighbors," said Louise Grant Prewitt, who founded the Community School along with Corrine Clausen and Marge Morris Dente.

Before there was a Community School, there were three welding machines sitting unused, still in the box at the middle school.

"Our boys were in the eighth grade at the time, and Nichols Brothers had just donated them and they weren't being used," Prewitt said. "So we paid to have three stations made for them, if they started offering classes."

Soon their sons were among the swarms of young boys who took welding classes on South Whidbey during the 1970s.

"It was in high demand because at that time young men were getting their welding certification and heading north to Alaska to work on the oil pipeline," Prewitt said.

The welding classes continued for a number of years. The trio of women saw that as a window of possibility opening.

They looked around more and saw nothing to do, for them or for their children.

"There wasn't really an art program, no drama, nothing really past the basic education for our kids," Clausen said. "And for the adults, there were even fewer enrichment opportunities."

"It was dead here during the winter, a lot of the population was only here for the summer," Prewitt said.

They also saw the schools sitting unused after regular school hours. So they asked for use of the school buildings to offer enrichment classes.

They recruited teachers -- friends, neighbors, anyone they believed had something to offer -- and put together a list of 18 classes for people.

Clausen, Dente, and Prewitt each pooled $85 each to print the first class schedule and registration mailing.

"We all swore we wouldn't tell our husbands because that was a lot of money at the time," Prewitt said.

They worked with Paula Hinchee Barneby, the then vocational director at South Whidbey High School to organize the effort. A one-night only registration was held.

They received a surprising response: nearly 200 people signed up, eager to take the classes they offered.

Soon other women joined the effort. Cecelia Reed came on as the Community School's treasurer. Beginning in 1977, the district began paying for a part-time coordinator -- Jan Witsoe -- who has since taken the community school under her wing.

"Without Jan Witsoe this program would have died long ago," Clausen said.

The community school pays for itself, with all other operating costs met by enrollment fees.

"It was set up so well so many years ago that we follow the same method and set-up today. And it continues to be successful," Witsoe said.

Prewitt remembers the state of Washington actively pushing community schools at the time the founders organized the South Whidbey school.

"We went to a workshop the state organized, but we found we had already done it right," she said.

Clausen and Reed were recognized for their Community School efforts in 1985 by an organization called "Making a Difference," which saluted people for outstanding contributions to their community.

And now, along with Witsoe heading the Community School, there is a board that oversees the annual operation of the school.

Today, the Community School holds two sessions yearly -- one in the fall and one in the spring -- during which 75 classes are typically offered and 500 students enroll, according to Witsoe.

"Participating in these classes is an opportunity for everyone involved," said Sara Giswold, a current member of the Community School board.

"It's a way for many of these teachers to get their name or their new business out there in the community and it's also a way for people taking the classes to gain new friends and learn the resources available in the community."

Throughout the years, teachers have included the always popular duo of Emil Lindholt and Don Manchester, who taught classes such as "Cinnamon Roll 101."

"You couldn't help but pay attention, it was like watching a comedy routine," Prewitt said.

Shirley Reed, proprietress of the Kitchen Door cooking school, has been teaching cooking classes at the Community School for almost the entire 30 years it's been around. Reed said it was because of her teaching through the Community School that she opened the Kitchen Door.

"I love it. I continue to learn as much as I teach," Reed said.

Betty Gearheart Maddeford has been teaching bridge classes, as well as French, at the Community School for over 20 years.

"It's an experience that sticks with you well past the class session," she said. "I've made dozens, hundreds of friends through teaching at the Community School."

While there's always the perennial favorites like cooking, and tried-and-true offerings such as bridge, there have also been phases.

"There was a stretch there where country and western dancing was all the craze and inline skating had its popularity," Witsoe said.

There's also classes that last a lifetime. A number of people on Whidbey can point to chairs in their living rooms and say they learned to upholster them in a South Whidbey Community School class.

One day a woman approached five-year Community School teacher Dan Saul and thanked him for teaching her how to make hot-and-sour soup.

"She said that they now make it at least once a month, so now they know that at least those nights they can have a nice meal that's easy to make," he said. "That's what this is about, improving people's lives."

In a day and age when class offerings are everywhere on South Whidbey, Witsoe and the board continue to organize the South Whidbey Community School because of its unique value it holds for the community.

The school is an established community service where people can further their interests in a variety of areas, from garden and crafts to self-improvement.

"People can learn something new and be entertained at the same time," Giswold said. "These classes are something that is accessible to everyone in the community, there's not a huge commitment and the costs are kept low."

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