Baristanet sits down with Suzy Kass, executive director of the Adult School of Montclair.
How did you end up here in Montclair?
Early in my career, I worked at an ad agency as a graphic designer. I left to raise my two sons. After a sabbatical in Germany with my husband, I became inspired and taught myself to silk screen. I started distributing my own prints and greeting cards through galleries. This gave me the flexibility to be with my sons while allowing me to be creative. In 1999, I became an art director at an agency doing pharmaceutical advertising. I learned all the requisite software on the job and was able to strike out on my own in 2001. I had great clients and the Adult School of Montclair (ASM) was one. I returned from a trip to India and was so sorry to find that Lisa Redburn was stepping down as Executive Director of ASM. After some extensive list making (I do this to brainstorm and problem solve) I decided to apply for the job.
What made you go from graphic design/marketing to adult education?
Though I loved the clients I worked for, I often had to respond to strategy decisions that were set in motion before the work came to me. I learned through political involvement that I enjoy setting priorities, talking through solutions and working more collaboratively. I found the idea of working for a well-loved institution doing just that, very appealing.
Who comes up with the ideas for classes at the Adult School of Montclair?
Actually, it’s collaborative. We get both solicited proposals and unsolicited proposals, so it’s done by committee — a volunteer committee of people from the community.
We consider all kinds of proposals. We have some that we want to find a teacher for. Or we get unsolicited proposals–people who call us and want to teach something. They submit their proposals online. We consider them and come up with curriculum. It’s a collaborative, democratic process.
Are your instructors volunteers or paid?
They’re paid. We actually get our instructors through word-of-mouth. A lot of our instructors have been with us for a very long time. But when we’re looking for instructors, we might post something on the (Montclair) Watercooler, or here on Baristanet.
If we’re looking for somebody, we’ll go out and find them, but generally it’s a community that really is very generous. So we have a lot of luck looking in our own backyard.
Tell me about your student body?
Based on a survey we did in 2008, most students are 34-65, most have college degrees, and they are most interested in arts and crafts, fitness and exercise, food and wine, health and wellness, featured speakers.
What are some of the most popular courses?
It varies, of course, depending on trends and what the mood of the community/country is at any given time. The most popular courses this semester were Jon Meacham and Fareed Zakaria on “America and World Affairs” (92nd Street Y Live); “5K Training Program”; “Publishing Today”; “Rum Tasting”; “Meditation”; “Iran and the United States: Can a 30 Year Psychosis Be Overcome?” and “Tapas Time.”
How is enrollment?
Enrollment is quite good. We are up 9 percent compared to Spring ’09 semester. We are seeing students enroll later though. I think that this comes from economic uncertainty. People literally waited to see if they could budget in a class.
What do you like to do for fun?
I row on the Passaic River (I took the indoor rowing class at ASM). I love to dance, I love to cook and I watch a lot of old movies!
Who do you look up to and why?
The people I work with–staff and volunteers. We all work in close proximity and I get a chance to see them in good times and bad. I am always inspired by their humor, their creativity and their patience. We share the same priorities– the well-being and development of the school.
What’s your philosophy on life?
I think that the world can be a hard place – if fate has been more even handed with you, it is your duty to give back.
Is there anything else you think Baristanet readers should know about you and the Adult School of Montclair?
ASM is 75 years old and has started fundraising for the first time. We receive no funds and actually pay rent for the space that we occupy in the high school. There are challenges and opportunities on the horizon and we are building a fund so that we meet both. We have two upcoming events: “Food on the Tube” (June 1) and Christopher Hitchens in conversation with Salman Rushdie on June 8.
We really like to hear from members of the community about what they want to see taught. If I am at a party, people routinely tell me what they are taking or what they would like to see offered. I love this!