RIVER FALLS, Wis. — For one decade, tens of thousands of School District of River Falls Community Education catalogues have been printed and mailed every year.
The thin, sleek publications listing educational courses related to everything from cooking Korean food, to preparing your estate plan to beekeeping, have one purpose: To attract community members to come together for life enrichment.
“Our district is proud to include community education among our priorities. Education is a lifelong journey and through community education we coordinate many opportunities for adult education, enjoyment and interaction,” School District of River Falls Superintendent Jamie Benson said.
This is the 10th year of the program, a vision birthed from residents.
“That’s one of the really coolest parts about this. This really came from the community. It didn’t come from the superintendent, it came directly from the citizens,” Monique Squire, community education director, said.
An original group of community members asked the River Falls school district superintendent at the time, Tom Westerhaus, for the district to host an educational program.
Westerhaus, who came to River Falls after being in Minnesota, was surprised the district did not have a program in place and gave his support to write a strategic plan.
“Education should start with the earliest of children and can’t stop when you’re finished with college or high school, it’s a lifelong venture. The community education model is here for promoting that in whatever capacity that might lead us to,” Westerhaus said in a recent phone interview.
Once the program was established through residents’ votes at an annual school board meeting in late 2010, Westerhaus was asking for classes to begin in February 2011.
Squire jumped in as the coordinator in November 2010 and started from the ground up, getting support from surrounding communities like Ellsworth, Hudson, Prescott and New Richmond which were hosting their own community education programs.
“My philosophy was that we were starting with an empty canvas. It wasn’t my job to just throw out a couple classes. I really had to find out what people wanted, it was their program, it wasn’t my program,” Squire said.
Squire began by appearing at other community events to survey people’s preferences.
“Surprisingly, people started knocking on my door saying they wanted to teach. So instead of offering five classes we offered 30, we had that many teachers wanting to teach. I was wary of having enough people to sign up, but it went gangbusters,” Squire said.
Mark Tomlinson was one of those "knocking on her door."
A local teacher of tai chi for 17 years at the time, Tomlinson was looking for a new teaching home as his longtime setup at the River Falls area hospital was changing.
“A friend of my wife’s worked for the school district at the time and mentioned that they were having a new program, so I called Monique and we chatted and decided this would be a good offering, good fit,” Tomlinson said.
Since then, 73-year-old Tomlinson has taught 10-week evening courses with community education every year and has no plans to drop out.
“A lot of commuters and professionals in their 30s, 40s, 50s nearby and commuting come to get some exercise, tranquility and have a little bit of communal sense of shared adventure,” Tomlinson said.
Tomlinson is one of many teachers who return to the program each year to offer their expertise, wisdom and leadership.
Over the years, River Falls Community Education has grown exponentially, giving opportunities for people to experience not only classes but a wide variety of local events like the annual Daddy Daughter Dance or day trips to Minneapolis theater productions.
During the first year, 582 people registered to participate. Approximately 3,000 register on average each year now with over 250 classes and events to choose from.
Most participants are women ages 30-50, but there are hopes to draw more men and younger people.
The program has attracted participants over the past decade from 200 different zip codes in the area, with almost 19,000 registrants from River Falls and dozens from the Twin Cities metro area.
To accommodate for the growth, the program employs a full-time secretary in addition to Squire’s full-time position, a 15-person advisory council, administrative team, tutors, volunteer coordinators and many other positions.
Funding originates from the Community Service Fund 80. This fund is untouchable for books, teachers or K-12 programs and comes from a small tax levy which costs property owners an average of $12 each year.
Instructors are asked to reasonably charge participants for any necessary materials, but some courses are free. Those interested and are income eligible may be able to receive a scholarship through River Falls Municipal Utility.
“We’re very much nonprofit. We’re not in this to make a profit we’re just trying to break even. We try to keep things as low-cost as possible,” Squire said.
While River Falls community education has found success region-wide, Squire holds fast to the belief that it’s not about the numbers, it’s about quality and experience.
Why community ed?
Participate in lifelong learning to keep current with skills and take up enriching hobbies.
Take advantage of equipment and space provided by school buildings funded by local taxpayers.
Be a part of the unity happening community- and district-wide.
Adapt to change as it occurs, such as becoming familiar with new technology through community ed courses.
Earn supplemental income, share your passion and develop leadership traits as an instructor.