Martha’s Vineyard adult education agency enters a new phase

With his breadth of nonprofit knowledge, executive director Sam Hart is breathing new life into ACE MV.

Sam Hart and project assistant Sarah Monast are leading a reinvigorated adult education program on Martha's Vineyard. — Michael Cummo

Islanders who braved arctic conditions to check their mailbox this week were rewarded with a sure sign that winter is on the wane — the arrival of the spring course catalog for Adult and Community Education of Martha’s Vineyard (ACE MV). This is the first time that ACE MV has mailed catalogues directly to Martha’s Vineyard residents, one of many changes initiated by Sam Hart since he became executive director in July. There is also a revamped web site that launched this Tuesday, and expanded course offerings, four new board members, and for the first time in ACE MV history, an office. ACE MV is housed on the second floor of the Martha’s Vineyard Community Services Family Center, a converted two-story home on Greenwood Avenue in Vineyard Haven that once housed the Nathan Mayhew Seminars, which formerly provided adult education offerings.

Over the barely muffled ruckus of preschoolers burning off cabin fever on the first floor, Mr. Hart and retiring executive director Lynn Ditchfield sat down with The Times to discuss the challenges of keeping ACE MV financially afloat while making it relevant to the needs of Islanders.

Ms. Ditchfield, a Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School teacher for 25 years, founded ACE MV in 2008. She operated on a shoestring budget, patched together with income from classes, small local grants and private donations. “Education that’s open to all members of the public is not free,” she said. “It’s expensive. Honestly, the fact that we waddled along and doubled our enrollment before we got the town funding was a small miracle. But it would not have been without hours and hours of volunteer work.”

Despite the best efforts of Ms. Ditchfield and dedicated volunteers, by the summer of 2013, ACE MV was in dire financial straits. A chance meeting with Mr. Hart in December 2013 marked the beginning of the turnaround. “I speak fluent Russian, and I really missed teaching, so when I asked Lynn if I could teach a class at ACE MV, she said, ‘Sure, we just need to get you vetted,’” Mr. Hart said. “Once I gave her my résumé and she saw that I had done tons of grant writing, she asked me to write grants for ACE MV, and the rest is history.”

“It was time to get some new blood in here, and someone who’s really an expert at these things,” Ms. Ditchfield said.

Mr. Hart’s nonprofit experience includes working for the Global Justice Center, the Working Group for Women, Peace and Security, and the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, all based in New York City. Prior to that, Mr. Hart spent four years in Russia, teaching English and then working for a think tank in the Republic of Georgia.

Mr. Hart has deep Island roots. He grew up in Chilmark, and began his academic training at the old Chilmark school. “I’m one of the few remaining Harts,” he said. “I have a lot of cousins who live in Hart Haven.” Mr. Hart was shuttling between New York City and the Vineyard to tend to his ailing father when he met his wife Laura. They stayed after his father died, which led to his meeting with Ms. Ditchfield, and to taking the helm at ACE MV. “It’s not without irony that we’re sitting in the building that housed the Nathan Mayhew Seminars, which was the first attempt, in the 1970s, to bring a college here on the Island,” he said.

Doing the math
The first order of business for Mr. Hart was to address the fiscal crisis, which meant asking the towns to vote for a total of $90,000 in Community Preservation Act (CPA) funds at town meetings. Despite some opposition to the use of taxpayer dollars, voters in all six towns approved the measure. “The voters said, loud and clear, that adult education and community education is important here,” Mr. Hart said. “Town officials also gave us a lot of support.”

“We asked for $90,000 and we got it, which was wonderful; the towns really stepped up,” Ms. Litchfield said. “This year we’re asking for $50,000.” The amounts ACE MV will request at town meetings this year range from $1,435 from Aquinnah to $15,425 from Edgartown.

“We’re on the road to being self-sustaining,” Mr. Hart said. “Our figures are all trending in a positive direction. Our costs are down, and enrollment revenue is up. We’re expecting an even bigger spring enrollment. Hopefully next year, and the years after, we won’t have to turn to the taxpayers.”

Mr. Hart said his ultimate financial goal for ACE MV is to turn a profit that can be funneled back into the Island schools. “Brookline and Newton started out with town support, became self-supporting, and now they put money back into the education system, which is what we’re shooting for,” he said.

Mr. Hart launched the first ACE MV annual appeal campaign last fall, reaching out to more than 500 Islanders and seasonal people. The appeal raised $11,420, far short of the $45,000 goal, but Mr. Hart said the effort was well worth it. “It’s not bad for our first time out,” he said. “We’re going to expand the appeal as we hone our fundraising skills. We have a very capable, active board. I think we can look at doing some more fundraising in the spring.”

Mr. Hart will continue to use his grant-writing skills to broaden ACE MV funding sources. He also wants to broaden the ACE MV audience. “We want to start offering classes and programs in the summer, when the Island population goes over 100,000,” he said. “We have to start tapping into that.” Mr. Hart is confident that ACE MV offerings can compete with Island summer idylls. “If you have a child in college who failed a general-requirement course, say in English or biology, we’d like to offer a class where they can make up that credit,” he said.

“We’ve been talking to Fitchburg State to have a summer institute that would bring people here,” Ms. Ditchfield said. “One of our missions is to also bridge generations, like dance classes for parents and children.” Ms. Ditchfield said enrichment courses will also expand, adding that they currently benefit the ACE MV bottom line. “When we went to the towns for funding, I heard people say, ‘We don’t want to pay for cooking courses.’ I’d like to clarify, cooking courses are our bread and butter,” she said. “They help us fund other courses that don’t have high enrollment.”

Island needs assessment
This summer, ACE MV initiated a comprehensive needs assessment survey to determine what will best serve the Island population, something that hasn’t been done since the 1970s, according to Ms. Ditchfield.

“We started working on the assessment in July,” Mr. Hart said. “It’s already completely funded with grants.” Mr. Hart said former MVRHS Principal Peg Regan is leading the study, in conjunction with UMass Dartmouth. “We’ve already interviewed 46 stakeholders in the community, business leaders, educators, health care workers, town officials, to ask them how they think adult and community education can benefit the Island,” Mr. Hart said. “Preliminary data suggests job skill and professional development are No. 1. There’s concern about the Island workforce, how young people are meeting postsecondary educational and professional goals. Also, basic skills, like personal finance and accounting, have ranked high.”

Responding to the data, this spring ACE MV is offering professional development and certification courses for the trades and for the service industry. Offerings will include “ServSafe” certification for restaurant employees, pesticide licensing, and the newly required fertilizer-safety certification.
ACE MV will also offer dual-enrollment courses this spring, where high school juniors and seniors can earn credits that will transfer to any state university in Massachusetts.

One of the most striking findings of the needs assessment is that many people don’t know what ACE MV already offers.

“We’ll hear that we need to offer Excel courses, and people are amazed when I tell them we’ve been offering them for six years,” Ms. Ditchfield said.

“We’ve also been offering QuickBooks for six years,” Mr. Hart said. “We just had a business owner send his staff to learn QuickBook. He had no idea. It’s clear we have to do a lot more outreach.” Mr. Hart said ACE MV will continue to strengthen the core business curriculum and also help businesses keep apace of technology with social media courses. He hopes to add a course in 3D printing when funding allows.

A long-term objective for ACE MV is to offer a curriculum broad enough so an Islander can earn an associate degree (A.S.) without ever hopping on a ferry. While online education is growing rapidly, the attrition rates are extremely high, according to Mr. Hart. “They’re big moneymakers for schools, and they certainly have some value, but my experience tells me you need a classroom component as well,” he said.