At Triton College, school's out for never

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By Brett McNeil

Columnist

John Buteau isn't even trying. 

For 17 straight springs, the Riverside resident has enrolled in Triton College's basic birdwatching course and every year it's been the same outcome. 

"I keep failing the class," he deadpans. 

In fact, there are no grades in this continuing education course that for decades has been offering an introduction to the migrating birds of spring for Oak Park-area residents. For the last three years, I've joined the group and, like Buteau and most of my classmates, have no plans to graduate.

Our teacher, an Elmwood Park resident named Louise Olivo-Kier, is herself a former student in the class. She first enrolled in 1995 -- the course was already well established at that point, she said -- and has been leading the weekly excursions into Chicago-area forest preserves since 2003. 

Olivo-Kier is great, a natural birder with a keen sense for bird song and seemingly limitless reserves of patience for repeat students who still regularly ask if that's a robin over there. 

Yes, it's a robin. 

But that's partly why the class functions as it does. 

"Have you ever been around a birding group?" Buteau asks, meaning a group of hardcores and fussbudgets, the sort who wear floppy hats and Wellies, use Latin names and say things like, "The tertials are the really reliable field mark for female mountain bluebirds."

"They are just too much pressure," Buteau says.

In our class, there's no pressure or pretense. We're just people interested in birds and, through birds, in the natural world -- even one like right here in Cook County that so often goes unseen and unacknowledged. 

"My goal is for people to appreciate and identify birds and nature, to become aware of all the things that are around them," Olivo-Kier said, standing in a parking lot at the Skokie Lagoons last Saturday after we ticked off 30 species during a stroll around the preserves. "It's so urban and the birds are all here."

Highlights from the morning included several dozen yellow-rumped warblers, a half dozen wood ducks, a couple really brilliant goldfinches and a croaking Sandhill Crane that passed right overhead.

The birding class is a textbook continuing-ed course, the kind Triton Assistant Dean of Continuing Education Colleen Rockafellow is talking about when she says the school targets "lifelong learners" who, when the course is a hit, keep coming back. 

Many of these students, across the tens of dozens of continuing ed courses offered in-person and online, are Oak Park and River Forest residents. Oak Park and River Forest High School is the single largest extension site for Triton continuing ed courses and foreign language, wood carving and woodworking classes offered at the high school are regularly filled to capacity. In all, up to 300 students attend Triton continuing ed classes at OPRF in a given semester.

Just a sec for a public education aside ... The current administration in Washington has proposed significant budget cuts to community colleges across the country while at the same time extending a gilded invite to the for-profit college operators (looking at you, Betsy!) to squeeze back up to the student loan hog trough. 

This sucks for all kinds of reasons -- unless you held on to your DeVry stock -- but not least because community colleges really do offer quality courses at a fraction of what you'd pay for similar instruction in a for-profit school of any kind. 

Triton music lessons are cheap, their concealed carry course (yes, that too) is cheap and professional, their language courses are cheap, the birdwatching class is a steal and the woodworking course at OPRF is criminally inexpensive considering the quality of instruction and the pro-level tools and machines available to students.

Yeah, I enrolled in the woodshop class too. 

My buddy and I went into this last fall thinking we'd build reproductions of a sweet little rocking chair I rescued from the Brown Elephant a couple years ago. On our first night in class, instructor Jim Messer, who runs the OPRF wood shop as his day job, asked if we had ever built any furniture. When the answer was no, he explained we would not be starting with the rocking chair. 

"That's more of a master class," Messer said and gently steered us to the handsome traditional sawbenches (in maple!) that we are slowly making under his supervision. 

My buddy is a Northwestern graduate and musician. I have a couple history degrees and worked as a writer for a long time. Neither of us took many shop classes along the way but, man, we are having a good time. And so are our classmates.

Marni Beals is building a mid-century bench out of some very sweet walnut. This spring course is her first of any kind with Triton. She learned about it from a neighbor in Maywood and from reading one of the old-fashioned print brochures that arrive in the mail every couple months. 

Beals said her dad was a woodshop teacher, so she came with some knowledge and skills, but she said it's been "eye-opening how complicated it is" to make what seems like a simple piece of furniture.

"It's way more complicated than I thought it would be."

There are angles, and more angles, and angles. 

Beals said she appreciates the approach that Messer has taken with his adult students -- there is no set curriculum and everyone chooses their own project. Messer then serves as advisor and technical guide throughout. 

"Having access to the knowledge when you get started is invaluable," she said. 

Another benefit to pro tools and instruction: "I'll leave here with all my fingers," Beals quipped.

So far, no one's lost a finger. A couple of us have even finished a project and moved on to the next one. 

I'm not sure if I'll finish the bench this spring but if it doesn't happen, they're expanding the woodworking class to two sessions next fall. So there's plenty of time.

Triton's continuing ed classes can be viewed at triton.edu/ce but the site has its quirks. The CE office is at 708-456-0300, ext. 3500, and the summer continuing ed guide ought to be in local mailboxes in about two weeks. There is still room in the summer birdwatching course, and operators are standing by!

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Colleen Rockafellow  

Posted: April 26th, 2017 10:05 AM

Great article! Thank you for sharing your positive experiences with our Continuing Education classes at Triton College.

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