Ginny Joyner, of Charlotte, has taught watercolor classes with Access CVU for more than 15 years.

The program offers non-traditional education to anyone, anywhere, anytime.

Joyner teaches to bring the joy of art to those who might not normally pick up a paintbrush.

“So many adults had art experiences where they had teachers that were not positive or told them they were horrible,” she said. “My goal is to never deter anybody. I want everyone to just continue painting.”

Last spring, she was one of a few Access teachers who continued lessons, switching to online instruction, as the virus took root in the community.

“It was weird,” she said of the transition.

Joyner would pre-record herself painting and share it with the class. Then, students would log on to a live Zoom lesson to discuss their progress.

“Which was no fun because nobody was painting together anymore like we had been,” she said.

But this semester she’s making changes to become part of a vibrant new Access program in the age of COVID-19.

What is Access?

You might have received a mailing from “Access Community Education for All” at some point over the last two decades. Each year about 25 percent of Vermonters do, according Access’ former founder and director, Eddie Krasnow.

Now, newly minted leaders Laura Howard and Jennifer Morton will see the community education classes through pandemic-prompted changes.

Access is a community education program built on the principals of affordability and openness to all. It pairs teachers from a multitude of backgrounds like art, cooking and language instruction with community members for semester-long night classes in the Champlain Valley Union High School (CVU). The program was inspired by a community call for accessible, any-age education and made possible by a grant. It was founded by Krasnow in the spring of 2000.

“Many schools close up at 3:30, 4 o’clock, after the athletes leave at 5,” he said. “Public high schools, especially in Vermont, they’re our biggest asset as far as a building. Everyone owns it, so why not use it?”

Krasnow recalls Access’ first season well. He reached out to potential instructors and made a 20-course catalog. About 200 people signed up for the classes, only 10 of which ran.

Over time, the program expanded to more than 150 course offerings each semester, with about 5,000 students per year, including Vermonters and New Yorkers.

“No door was ever locked for me and I think that was the key to success,” Krasnow said. Every member of the school from administrators to teachers to custodians generously backed the program and allowed him and instructors to use their space.

Krasnow stepped back to part time for the last several years as Howard and Morton took on larger leadership roles.

“They’re terrific,” Krasnow said. “There’s quite a bit of challenge right now but that just shows what Laura and Jen can do with an amazing challenge like COVID. I don’t see any end to the support of the district so I think it’s going to be something that lasts and keeps growing.”

In capable hands

Just after Krasnow hung up his Access leadership hat last spring, COVID-19 began to spread across the country. Howard and Morton had to act quickly to navigate community education in a time when gathering simply wasn’t safe.

“When COVID hit we weren’t sure what to do,” Howard recalled. Most of Access’ programming shut down, and the duo used the remainder of the spring and summer to prepare for teaching in a new world.

They planned to have smaller class sizes to take place within CVU.

“Then a little bit of a wrench was thrown in. The Department of Education stated that there will be no public access to educational buildings,” Howard said.

They did “the pivot” many have come to know and embrace during COVID-19 — hybridizing 150 classes in a mix of online and in-person, outdoor, classes.

“What Access offers is a connection. That’s a connection to each other, like-mindedness, a connection to learn new things,” Howard said. “Our community supports access. They’re lifelong learners and they’re always interested in meeting other lifelong learners.”

And it’s a place to form lifelong friendships, Howard said.

The duo believes that having former instructors return this semester and opening up online classes to people outside of Vermont — which could allow locals to invite their family and friends from afar to take a class with them — will help keep the spirit of connection going.

“We’re building community in different ways right now,” Morton said.

Howard believes Access students will be pleasantly surprised by how fun online classes can be.

The artist at work

This fall, Joyner said she’s learning from the teaching-in-COVID experience and changing her approach. She has been in touch with a CVU student who is helping her learn how to use different cameras and tools to offer live painting demonstrations online. This type of collaboration is a hallmark of the Access program at CVU, according to Krasnow.

And she hopes to host outdoor classes while the weather permits.

Painting can be relaxing and inspire people to “really look” at their surroundings, Joyner said.

“I just love the fact that a lot of the people I teach keep painting,” she said. “I love being able to share knowledge or tips. I get a lot out of it, it’s a very uplifting, fulfilling job.”

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