The 11 students in the fading snapshot wear black mortarboards with gold tassels.
They range in apparent age from 20s to perhaps 60s. Their arms are folded and they are trying to look solemn for their graduation picture, but the bright smiles on most of their faces appear to be winning out.
Tucked into the rear right corner is Joan Flanery, who was director of Boyd County’s adult education program when the picture was taken in the late 1970s.
Flanery and another woman at the far left side of the photo, paraprofessional Ruth Ann Smith, were the program’s only staffers at the time, and until her retirement in June Flanery was its only director.
Having guided and nurtured the adult education program through almost 40 years, it is understandable that Flanery would see it in human terms.
“It’s been my third child,” she said, speaking in the office that was hers until her retirement in June. “It will be a cause in my heart until my heart stops beating.”
Flanery, who still hasn’t finished going through pictures and other materials that accumulated over four decades, visited her office Wednesday to offer a retrospective look at a career in which adult education evolved from a few night classes for students seeking high-school equivalency diplomas to a full-time center focusing on college and career readiness.
When Flanery came to adult education following a couple of years teaching elementary school in Louisiana, the learning center was just coming into vogue in Kentucky. Following a graduate assistantship in adult and continuing education at Morehead State University, she came to Ashland as coordinator of adult education, which at the time was part of the city school system.
The first quarters were in the former Wylie Elementary School building, which also housed Head Start and community education classes mostly consisting of leisure pursuits like art and ballroom dancing.
Night classes evolved into the center concept with daytime hours and some evenings. Rather than setting class times, the center encouraged drop-ins and provided individual attention. As the program evolved and the school district acquired the former Ashland Junior College building on Central Avenue, the center moved there and occupied much of the second floor.
Much growth occurred during the Wallace Wilkinson administration, when first lady Martha Wilkinson focused on GED attainment. Wilkinson scored an immense publicity coup — and adult education centers reaped the benefit — when country music legend Waylon Jennings earned his GED in Kentucky in 1990.
Jennings and the first lady toured the state and made a stop in Ashland. His star power and Wilkinson’s dedication resulted in a GED spike. In Ashland, the peak year was 2000, with about 200 GED graduates.
The rate has declined since then, perhaps because of the program’s move to Ashland Community and Technical College’s Summit campus, where it was less accessible, Flanery said. However, the recent move to ACTC’s city campus on College Drive may drive the numbers back up, she said.
At the least, it has channeled more ACTC students to the center, where they can take remedial classes for free rather than using up their limited Pell grant money, she said.
Further, guiding GED graduates into college increasingly is the focus of adult education in an era when a high-school diploma no longer is a sufficient credential for career readiness.
Also driving growth in the 1990s was Clinton-era welfare reform, with adult education a key component of the welfare to work movement.
In recent years, the center has moved to more structured classes, twice a week for an hour and a half, rather than drop-in hours. The arrangement mirrors the college class structure and leaves students more prepared to move up to the college level.
There is no guarantee that adult education will change every student’s life, Flanery said. But she can’t count the number of students who have told her they circled the block repeatedly before mustering the nerve to go to the center for the first time, and she has seen the hands shaking with nervous tension as new students sign up.
Those are the students she feels most responsible for. “They are out of their comfort zone and learning they have abilities. We see them evolving in self-confidence and self-esteem.”
Flanery was named the Kentucky Adult Educator of the Year in 1989 and the program was named Kentucky Adult Education Program of the Year in 1984-85.
Flanery also received the YWCA Women’s Leadership in Education award in 1999.
MIKE JAMES can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or