January 2, 2014

Princeton Adult School, A Community Treasure, Celebrates 75 Years of Engaging Education

Want to try your hand at writing a play? A short story? Or learn how to re-upholster that vintage armchair? How about taking a turn on the dance floor — ballroom style? Or if you prefer, get your exercise belly dancing!

What about that yoga class you always wanted to try? Got the travel bug? Try Tough Love Travel for adventurous journeys. Or, rock climbing, ice skating — and whatever your age, it’s never too late to learn to ride a bike!

Watch the birds, hike the trails, learn to cook Italian, plan your retirement, learn to converse in Turkish, enhance your social media skills, discover the intricacies of all those apps, or explore the nuances of film noir.

All of the above — and so much, much more — is available at the Princeton Adult School (PAS), a true treasure of the community, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year.

Idea In Motion

Established in 1939, the school was the result of the efforts of a number of Princeton residents, who wished to offer the community an opportunity for continued learning. In particular, Ruth Schleifer and Laura Peskin whose husbands owned Princeton News Delivery Service, and Mrs. W. R. Brearley, principal of the Nassau Street Elementary School, were instrumental in setting the idea in motion in 1938. After Ms. Schleifer visited the Trenton Adult School, she remarked, “Why don’t we have such a school here? If Mrs. Brearley will do the curriculum, I’ll do the registration.”

Out of that visit and those remarks emerged what was then called the Princeton Leisure Hour School, with a system of registration that involved spreading out index cards on tables in the Schleifer living room.

Support for the school was immediate and widespread, with the Presidents of Princeton University and Princeton Theological Seminary and B. Woodhull Davis, Acting Principal of Princeton’s public schools all enthusiastic supporters.

500 people signed up for the initial 50 courses at $2 per class, the most popular being world politics, followed by ballroom dancing, photography, bridge, and “typewriting”. Other courses included music appreciation, public speaking, sewing, dress making, modern homemaking, craft and metal shop work, English and American literature, poetry, and sketching.

“This was toward the end of the Depression, and in some cases, people were looking for skills that they could use to help them get a job,” points out Nancy Beck, former PAS executive director, current board member, and curriculum coordinator.

Classes were held at Princeton High School, and people of all ages, backgrounds, and races attended. As Anne Brener, PAS current executive director, explains, “The goal of the Adult School was to make its classes available to everyone. As its mission stated from the beginning, it was ‘to offer to the adult residents of the Princeton area — regardless of race, color, creed, place of national origin, or sex — a variety of courses for their benefit and enjoyment.’”

$3 Per Class

This was a time, in 1939, when some public schools in Princeton were segregated, adds Ms. Brener.

Classes were discontinued during World War II, and then in 1948, the school reopened as the Princeton Adult School. The cost of a class had risen to $3, and more courses were added, including jewelry design, furniture repair, family life, languages, great religions of the world, “Behind the Headlines” (A look at the world in 1948; Democratizing Japan; Rebuilding Germany; Tension in the Near East), among others.

Class instructors included Princeton and Rutgers University professors, and other authorities in their fields of expertise.

Over the years, PAS and its classes have continued to increase in popularity. When it turned 50 in 1989, student enrollment had grown six times during the course of the five decades. Now at age 75, PAS, during the 2012-13 fall/spring term, enrolled more than 3500 students in 320 courses, which is seven times the student enrollment and 11 times the course offerings available at the Princeton Leisure Hour School in 1939.

The variety of the course offerings is the result of the dedication of the Adult School staff and board members and the resources of the community, notes Ms. Beck.

Adds Ms. Brener: “We’ve become a family. It’s a part-time office but full-time job keeping on top of everything. Debbie Washington, the business manager, always has a new vision of how to improve what we are doing. With the support of our part-time accountant Jacquie Seelig, we enjoy working as a team and with the board to bring over 200 classes to life.”

40 Members

The board consists of 40 members, and each individual serves on two committees, and helps to set the curriculum. “This is really a hands-on board,” points out curriculum coordinator Nancy Beck, who also focuses on the lecture committee. “We are very busy. The biggest challenge is continuing to find classes that people are interested in and keeping the prices as affordable as possible.”

Involvement in the Princeton community, including the University and public libraries, the Princeton University Art Museum, and the Princeton Symphony, is also a focus of PAS. Classes, lectures, and events are often in conjunction with these organizations.

“For the Adult School’s 75th anniversary, we are holding several ‘Conversations’, each one focused on a different topic of special interest to our audience,” says Ms. Brener. “The intent of these ‘Conversations’ is to have an informal exchange among interesting, thoughtful leaders who will share their insights and experiences with an engaged and informed moderator — and, on these Sunday afternoons, we can be part of the discussion. A reception for all attendees follows each ‘Conversation’.”

Held in the Friend Center (the Computer Science building on the Princeton University campus at the corner of Olden and William Streets), the “Conversations” are open to the public, and tickets are $25 per event.

Two upcoming “Conversations” include “The Ambassadors” on Sunday, February 2 and “Focus on the Arts” on Sunday, March 2, both at 4 p.m. The first will include former U.S. Ambassadors Barbara Bodine, Robert Finn, and Daniel Kurtzer, who will talk with Evan Thomas, award-winning Newsweek editor and author of a recent book on Dwight D. Eisenhower’s presidency.

The second will focus on changes in the arts over the past 75 years, and the participants will discuss the challenges and rewards of maintaining a community commitment to the arts, and speculate about the future. Moderator Michael Cadden, chair of the Lewis Center for the Arts at Princeton, will be joined by Emily Mann, artistic director of McCarter Theater, William Lockwood, director of special programs at McCarter, James Steward, director of the Princeton University Art Museum, composer Derek Bermel, and Tony award-winning playwright Christopher Durang.

Smart and Innovative

Board member Pam Wakefield, whose speciality is the lecture series, is enthusiastic about the opportunities an Adult School in Princeton can offer. As she points out, “We understand and enjoy the challenge of connecting to this community in just about every conceivable area. In a busy university town like Princeton, people have the chance to be really selective about where and how they spend their spare hours. The Princeton Adult School staff and board members know we have to be smart and innovative about offering ways to fill those hours, and we are. If you want to see behind The New York Times headlines, or master fusion cuisine, or figure out what is bothering your pet, or understand sound investing, the Adult School is there to make that happen.

“Planning the Anne B. Shepard Lecture Series is a pretty amazing process,” continues Ms. Wakefield. “Drawing from Princeton University, Rutgers, and other academic neighbors, each semester, this committee puts together a who’s who in just about any direction they plan to address. On a personal level, about five years ago, I thought I would check out one of our yoga classes. I chose anti-aging, and I am still at it!”

Princeton resident Everett Kline, who has served on the board for five years, is directly involved with members of the community, including chefs and owners of local restaurants and eateries.

“Most of the courses I have developed have been in the area of food and drink — preparing fish with the wonderful chefs of the JM Group, including executive chef Jose Lopez of Nassau Street Seafood and executive chef Edgar ‘pollos’ Urias of Blue Point Grill; cooking the duck and all its parts with Scott Anderson of elements and Mistral; small plates of the Mediterranean with Chris Albrecht of eno terra; ice cream for all seasons with Gaby Carbonne of the Bent Spoon; brewing the perfect cup of coffee with Brant Cosaboom of Small World Coffee; spices with Jon Hauge of the Savory Spice Shop — the list goes on. One of the best parts of this work is experiencing the sense of community shared with our local businesses.”

Both Roles

Many of the board members not only help create the classes, they also become students. Princeton resident and board member, Ingrid Reed has enjoyed both roles. “I am both an admirer of the Adult School and a ‘customer’ at the same time that I am a board member. We create what is so amazing about the school — its diverse programs across many areas. Lectures and discussions, languages, arts and crafts, cooking, practical courses such as finance and exercise, and maybe most important, our many English as a Second Language courses.

“I first met the Adult School, when as a bride, I came to Princeton 50 years ago, and found the courses at the School — literature with Professor Sonnenfeld and bridge — to be a marvelous way to interact with others, and open my mind to books I had not read in college.

“Subsequently, I dipped into some other courses, but basically I simply was in awe of the brochure that I received every fall and spring that offered the opportunity for life-long learning in more than 200 courses,” continues Ms. Reed. “I joined the board more than 10 years ago, and have participated in developing the lecture programs, since working at Princeton University and Rutgers Eagleton Institute of Politics has connected me with faculty members who have taught in the Adult School. And I am pleased to be the liaison with the Princeton Symphony for the course based on the symphony’s current season offered by the Adult School.

“The energy and creativity of the active board members is a learning experience in itself, and I marvel to think that for 75 years, this community-based institution has responded to the needs and interests of the times, and remained faithful to the core mission of serving adult learners in practical and pleasurable ways.”

Princeton resident Shirley Satterfield has served on the board since 1990, specializing in the areas of creative arts, personal enrichment, and personal finance. She has also been a student in many of the classes, and her interests are widespread and varied — to say the least!

“Through the years, I have taken many courses including chair caning, Stand Up and Speak Out, two genealogy classes, cataloging, researching and evaluating your antiques and family treasures, Let’s Get Organized, Health food cooking, Lose Weight with hypnosis, exercise, quilting (from T-shirts to treasured quilt), learn to sing, learn to play the piano, preserving books (taken at Princeton University Library), the tea lovers club, making greeting cards, and introduction to power point.”

Important Benefit

“I enjoyed all the courses, and the ones that brought lasting enjoyment are chair caning and quilting,” said Ms. Satterfield. “The antique chair I caned and the stool that I rushed are proudly displayed in my home, and the rocking chair I caned is in my friend’s home. I am now making a large quilt with T-shirts that have meaning in my life.

“The most important benefit that students get out of taking courses at the Princeton Adult School is the instruction and knowledge from qualified and learned instructors, lecturers, and the fun, skills, and academic advancement each student receives.”

Finding qualified and engaging instructors is a challenge for the board, and members often discover the teachers in unusual ways, reports Ms. Brener. “Sometimes, someone calls us wanting to teach, and sometimes it can be unexpected. I may sit next to someone at an event — that is how I met David Greene, who taught the Cole Porter evening. We were at the Princeton Symphony Orchestra benefit, and sat next to each other at dinner. A conversation ensued, and now he has regaled the Adult School with a night of Gershwin, Frank Sinatra, and Cole Porter.

“Or I can run into someone at McCaffrey’s, and great things can happen. Twice, last spring, I was checking out, and met women who had taught for us years ago. Now, one has returned to teach decorative wall painting, and the other is teaching ceramics.”

“We want teachers who do it and know how to do it,” adds Ms. Beck. “For us, the criterion is not that they are the most renowned person in their field, but that they must know how to teach. It helps that we know people who know people!

“For example, we have met with Shirley Tilghman (former President of Princeton University), and she is a great supporter of the Adult School. We’ll say to her ‘we need someone for a science course’, and she is very helpful in suggesting young scientists who are interested in teaching a class.”

Civil War Battlefields

There are such great opportunities, continues Ms. Beck. For example, “Pulitzer Prize winning author, James McPherson, former Princeton University history professor, takes a class on weekend trips to Civil War battlefields each spring. He has done this for several years, and it is a wonderful opportunity to see the battlefields with his guidance and expertise.”

The teachers also enjoy the classes, often as much as their students, and many have taught at the School for years. Singing instructor Alta Malberg, who also teaches privately in New York City and Princeton, has taught at the School for 12 years. As she notes, the students, who come from Princeton and the surrounding area, create an interesting dynamic.

“They have diverse backgrounds, talents, and knowledge, which gives to the classes as much as the instructors give to them. In my class, lasting friendships have formed, continuing outside of the classroom. Princeton Adult School does our community a great service because it reaches out, bringing students in, and they leave with a better sense of Princeton and the world around them.

“I teach singing with a lot extra,” points out Ms. Malberg. “One cannot be a successful singer without learning the ‘joy of the song.’ We learn to appreciate the lyrics and what our interpretation is through feelings, which leads to acting exercises. That leads to breathing and other physical exercises, such as placement of the voice, which leads to more freedom and enjoyment of your instrument, your voice.

“We do work as a group because of the time constraints, but if a student wants it, we do have a short time to work one-on-one. The students who attend my class are sometimes professionals who want a review, amateurs, who always wanted to do this but never had the opportunity or the time, and singers who just want to come out of the shower and enjoy the thing they love best — singing!”

Piano teacher and Princeton resident Jean Parsons has taught at PAS for more than 10 years, and her students are beginners. “I have taught people who have never played anything,” she reports. “In the fall, there is one beginning class. In spring, those people who wish to continue can do so the hour before the new beginning class is held.”

Full of Wonders

“Learning all our lives keeps us alive and growing,” adds Ms. Parsons. “The world is so full of wonders to discover, and we are in a position in our town to have them explained by some of the foremost people in their fields. I appreciate their generosity in sharing their knowledge with all of us who sign up at the Princeton Adult School and feed our curiosity.”

PAS has also paid special tribute during this 75th anniversary year to the late James Diamond, who was killed in an automobile accident last March. Rabbi Diamond had taught a very popular short story class at PAS for several years.

A series of lectures and events are planned to celebrate the School’s birthday throughout the coming year. Several other non-profit organizations will be hosting events in honor of its anniversary. These include the Princeton Public Library, Princeton Arts Council, McCarter Theater, Princeton University Art Museum, Pro Musica, Rider University/Westminster Choir College, Princeton Festival, Princeton University Concerts, Historical Society of Princeton, Morven, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton Symphony Orchestra, Dorothea’s House, and Princeton Healthcare System.

A champagne gala and live auction will be held May 4 at Jasna Polana. This special party is being underwritten by William and Judith Scheide, who with Betty Wold Johnson and Vivian and Harold Shapiro, are honorary co-chairs. Among the items to be auctioned are a trip to the Today Show with NBC’s chief medical editor Dr. Nancy Snyderman; a day with award-winning chef Scott Anderson of elements; and a cocktail party for 20 with two “mystery” servers.

Behind the Scenes

Additional auction selections include a day behind the scenes at McCarter Theater with artistic director Emily Mann; an after-hours children’s birthday party at JaZams toy store; a day with Princeton University Art Museum director James Steward in a behind the scenes tour at the Frick Collection and other art galleries on the Upper East Side of New York City; and a walk-on role at the Princeton Festival production of Diamonds Are Forever.

Not only has the Adult School offered people the opportunity to continue learning, it has often resulted in unexpected “side effects,” including lifelong friendships, romance and marriage, and gainful employment!

In years past, after a brief romance, a language teacher and one of his students were married, and have lived happily ever after. In another case, two students met at a class in September, and were married by Thanksgiving!

As Nancy Beck has noted, PAS has offered so many benefits (planned and unplanned!) and continues to do so. “There is a social aspect to the School. I have made life-long friendships here, and met such interesting people. And the School allows me to contribute to my community in a way I would not have done otherwise.

“Learning never ends. Human beings want to learn. That is the important thing, whether it is cooking, language, art, science, or discovering a new book. Whatever your motivation, PAS offers an opportunity to learn and exercise your brain. It’s been said that if you can’t find something to do at PAS, you’re not really trying!”

Most classes at Princeton Adult School are held Tuesday evenings. PAS receives no public funding, and must pay the teachers and the pubic schools for use of the classrooms. Class costs generally range from $15 to $200, depending on the length of the course schedule. Senior discounts are available for some courses. Registration for spring classes begins on January 3, 2014. For more information, call (609) 683-1101. Website: princetonadultschool.org.