Niles school district’s adult education program moves to new location

Published 7:48 am Wednesday, April 17, 2019

NILES — Adult Education Director John Fonash said he knows how much courage and determination it can take for a person to return to high school as an adult.

For some prospective students, just the thought of getting out of the car and entering the school building gives them pause.

“I worked with countless adult education students over the years, where they reveal that they have been sitting in their car, trying to get the nerve to walk in the door and have that first conversation,” Fonash said.

Through a new partnership with the Niles District Library, school officials are hoping to create a welcoming environment that has a different feel than the average high school. Starting in March, Niles’ adult education program moved from the district’s Administration Building, 111 Spruce St., to the basement of the Niles District Library.

Through the program’s newfound home, school and library officials said they see the potential for the partnership to increase attendance and better serve students by putting them in closer proximity to social resources.

Monday evening, the partners welcomed the community to see the new learning space during an open house in the basement of the library. Here, people could view separated classroom spaces and communal place in the middle of the area, where students worked at laptops, alongside instructors. Mobile teacher desks, equipped with computers and stocked with pens and pencils can easily outline the periphery of the learning area and could easily be stowed away.

The district’s adult education program officially moved to the library on March 1. This year, there are 119 adult education students enrolled and working toward earning a high school diploma or taking GED preparation courses.

Fonash said the program has served students across Berrien and Cass counties from those ages 16 and up. Last year, he said the program had an 88-year-old graduate.

While Fonash said the adult education program’s curriculum has not changed at all with the move, he believes the new home will offer students a variety of resources that can seek to help them across many fronts.

Now, students that come to learn through the adult education program will be working near Jobs for Life, which helps people overcome employment barriers and find a career path. A social services worker is also present at the library to help people with everything from finding housing to aid services.

Additionally, a host of activities at the library could provide a place for students’ children to be while they tackle school work.

Due to the library’s central location, Fonash said the program would be more visible to prospective students, which officials believe could help bolster attendance numbers.

On an average Monday afternoon, Stephany Glass, of Niles, prepared for a math test with some guidance from Trenton Ries, an adult education instructor. Glass said she liked the environment.

“This is my first time coming to the library,” Glass said. “But it seems bigger, and it’s nicer. It seems more spacious, too. I feel like that would help with more students wanting to come.”

The school district will be renting the space from the library for $10,000 a year. He said adult education gets funding from three sources: state and federal grant funding and district funding.

“Putting all that together, there is enough room in our budget to cover all this,” Fonash said.

Nancy Studebaker, the director of the Niles District Library, described the basement space as formerly underutilized. 

“We hoped that we could use the space to develop some revenue, and we knew we wanted this space to help move our vision forward,” Studebaker said. “Our vision is a community of life-long learners.”

While there were a couple of other tentative partners looking at using the space, Studebaker said no official commitments were made, until the school partnership.

The basement room can still serve as a place for community forums and events, she said. When students are through with their lessons for the day, the tables, chairs and equipment can easily be rolled to the side and stowed away.

Back at the administration building, 111 Spruce St., Niles Superintendent Dan Applegate said the district is working to transition the remaining services to the new Cedar Lane building by Aug. 1. The administration building and former Cedar Lane buildings are still for sale.

To learn more about the adult education program, those interested can visit the district’s website at

Fonash praised the library for sharing its goals, helping students of all ages achieve and education while feeling at home.

“What’s really nice is that we have a library in Niles that has some vision and sees itself as a hub of community services and learning that is beyond just the old days of just checking out books,” Fonash said. “It’s really a place that has a lot of light to it and a lot of purposes.”