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Gwinnett's community schools strive to offer classes for lifelong learning

LAWRENCEVILLE - Ten years ago, Nelda Lunsford's son paid for her to take a yoga class at a community school.

"My son gave it to me for a birthday present because I wanted to get started in yoga," the Stone Mountain resident said. "I never even thought about looking at the community schools."

Now, Lunsford is part of a core group that faithfully signs up for each session of the yoga class at Brookwood Community School taught by Andrea Stevens, a teacher at Radloff Middle who has practiced Hatha yoga for three decades.

"We think of ourselves as a family," Stevens said. "We've made it through births and deaths. We count on each other."

The yoga students say they like the class because it keeps them moving and stretched out. They say Stevens keeps the class interesting by teaching new poses each session. And, they all note, the price is unbeatable.

Lifelong learning

The Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners and Board of Education entered into an agreement about 30 years ago to open their facilities to the community to promote lifelong learning, said Mike Emery, Gwinnett County Public Schools director of athletics, activities and community schools.

Community schools are housed in each of Gwinnett County Public Schools' cluster high schools: Berkmar, Brookwood, Central Gwinnett, Collins Hill, Dacula, Duluth, Grayson, Meadowcreek, Mill Creek, Norcross, North Gwinnett, Parkview, Peachtree Ridge, Shiloh and South Gwinnett. Each school offers an array of courses and programs targeted to the community it serves, Emery said. In addition, several classes are offered at Gwinnett County's parks and aquatic centers.

"The whole point is to cater to the community and what they would like us to have," Emery said. "If there's an interest there, we're going to try to have it there."

When the community schools program first started, several classes were offered for children and adults, said Dan Chelko, who has directed the Brookwood Community School for 27 years. As the county has grown, so has the number of businesses offering fitness and recreation classes. That means increased competition for the community schools.

"Our emphasis is always on teaching," Chelko said. "We have a one-prong motive - to utilize classrooms taxpayers built. We want to get you in and teach classes in a building you already paid for."

To keep people coming in the doors after classes let out, the community school directors (sometimes called "night principals") are constantly updating their course offerings.

"We run what's hot," Chelko said. "Our computer classes are down. There was a time when that was the hottest thing going."

Targeted instruction

Claire Boyce, like all community school directors, knows her community.

She knows many of the people who live in the Meadowcreek cluster don't subscribe to the newspaper, so they won't flip through the community schools catalog distributed twice a year. So each semester, Boyce prints copies of her course offerings in English and Spanish on a piece of Carolina blue paper, which she calls the "Blue Page." Then she takes the fliers to the middle and elementary schools in the cluster, as well as to strip malls and other businesses.

Because many of the people in the Meadowcreek community live in poverty, Boyce's classes are often offered at a reduced price. Boyce said she'll sometimes offer a class for free, just to get people to show up. If the students like the class, they'll often pay for the next session, she said.

"I want to expose the Meadowcreek cluster community to new and exciting opportunities for recreation and extended learning," Boyce said.

Boyce also knows she needs to meet the needs of her community. She set up a computer near her office so people can come in and search for jobs online. She offers a computer class to Spanish speakers, because some community members aren't interested in learning English but want to know how to use a computer.

"I'd like to think anyone who comes here knows they will be embraced," she said.

Likewise, Peachtree Ridge Community School Director Gail Robinson strives to meet the needs of a community that is economically, culturally and educationally diverse. She offers an Academy of Language and Learning and a Business Institute because she realized many people were interested in taking courses to make themselves more marketable in the work force.

"You have to listen to your community to know what to offer and know what they value," she said. "That's how you get a quality program."

Affordable classes

In Gwinnett County, everything is about teaching and learning, said Wanda Cain, director of the Mill Creek Community School.

"That's exactly what the community schools support," she said. "I think it's an amazing program. The community school allows people in each community to have access to wonderful programs at a very affordable (price)."

By taking classes at a community school, Cain said students are getting the best teachers and the best facilities for the best price.

Lawrenceville resident Jennifer Heppe said her son used to take a karate class at a community school.

"It was so much more reasonable than if I went out and found a studio," she said.

When Heppe decided she wanted to discover new ideas, she signed up to take "Finding Your Passion Path" at Brookwood Community School. She said she enjoyed learning new avenues of thinking.

Community schools are not designed to generate profit, Chelko said. Classes are priced to meet the cost of offering the lesson. While an SAT preparation class might cost $600 at a private company, the community school offers the class for $75.

"Sometimes people equate money to value," Chelko said, "when sometimes the value's already here."