Accidental educator: Fiola honored for work in community educationWORTHINGTON — As a college student some 40 years ago, Jerry Fiola never envisioned a future working in the education field. Yet, through a few twists of fate, that’s where he ended up, and two days ago, Fiola was presented with the Community Educator Award from the Minnesota Community Education Association, honoring a career that he “just backed into.”
By: Beth Rickers, Worthington Daily Globe
WORTHINGTON — As a college student some 40 years ago, Jerry Fiola never envisioned a future working in the education field. Yet, through a few twists of fate, that’s where he ended up, and two days ago, Fiola was presented with the Community Educator Award from the Minnesota Community Education Association, honoring a career that he “just backed into.”
“You’re not in it for awards,” he reflected about his 27 years in the community education field, “but it’s nice to be recognized for your work.”
Fiola — then a recent graduate of St. John’s University with a general degree in humanities — was volunteering his time at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in 1972 when he was asked to consider taking over for a teacher at St. Mary’s School.
“I’d been teaching church school and was waiting to get drafted,” he recalled about the events that led up to his first teaching gig. “That was the year the draft law had expired, and the Vietnam War was winding down. I had a low draft number and had already completed my pre-induction physical when I graduated from St. John’s in the spring. In October, they repassed the draft legislation, and I got my notice to report, so I went for my final induction physical — and got rejected.”
At the time, it was common practice for the Daily Globe to publish a photo of the recent inductees as they got on a Greyhound bus to report for military duty.
“By the time the picture was in the paper, I was already back in town,” Fiola recalled with a laugh.
The principal of St. Mary’s approached Fiola because there was a particularly unruly class at the time, and the teacher wasn’t planning to return after the Christmas break.
“I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. I didn’t necessarily have a teaching aspiration. I didn’t have any set career goals,” explained Fiola, who decided he might as well take the temporary teaching gig while he figured out what he really wanted to do.
“Myrt Hand, who was teaching out at the Crippled Children’s School at the time, gave me a crash course in elementary education,” he remembered. “Then I went back for my teaching certificate at Southwest State during the summer.”
For the next 3½ years, Fiola taught fourth, fifth and sixth grades at St. Mary’s, sharing duties with Maureen Soules, and continuing to take classes toward his teaching certificate during the summer. He was the only male teacher at the parochial school, which was predominantly staffed by nuns.
“I broke the glass ceiling at St. Mary’s,” Fiola quipped. “After 3½ years, I decided it was not what I was called to do, so I turned in my resignation in the spring of ’75.”
Once again, Fiola had “no real plans” for what he wanted to do next.
“Don Shannon was the executive director at Southwestern Minnesota Opportunity Council, and he knew I was a teacher and would have the summer off, so he asked me to coordinate the summer youth employment program. Right after that, SMOC’s community organization director resigned his position at SMOC, and Don asked me if I’d be interested in a full-time position.”
Due to other staff changes at SMOC, Fiola’s position expanded to include writing grants for a variety of SMOC programs.
“I basically also became the manager of the smaller programs where they didn’t have a full-time manager,” he said.
In 1981, Fiola parted ways with SMOC and once again was left contemplating a new career path. Community education was a relatively new entity in Worthington, introduced into the community in the mid-1970s, and was starting to expand its services, thanks to an infusion of funding from the state.
“The state had identified 10 consortiums to be a new model for administering adult education (ABE) classes,” explained Fiola, who became the second adult basic education coordinator, a program that at the time was geared largely toward people wanting to earn a GED and preparatory courses for such, in Worthington and surrounding communities such as Fulda, Adrian, Westbrook, Luverne and Slayton.
“But I had never completed my (teaching) licenture, so I took it with a conditional license and had to go back to Southwest State again,” said Fiola, adding that the requirements had changed in the interim. “I had to do additional student teaching at Central Grade School. So from 1981 to ’84, I had the job of ABE program manager on a teacher contract with extended time from mid-August through mid-June. Then in the winter of ’84, (community ed director) Tom Hall resigned, and just because of funding it was decided that it might be advantageous to combine the community ed director and ABE positions.’”
Fiola assumed the community education director spot, continuing to devote half his time to ABE.
Community education’s role continued to expand in the community through initiatives such as Early Childhood Family Education and after-school programming. But Worthington’s increased diversity brought about the biggest changes to community education efforts.
“Back in 1990, we worked with the city to form the cultural diversity coalition, which became a primary focus to address those needs and help reframe the sense of community,” Fiola said. “For about four years, we tried to organize about 100 volunteers serving on 10 different committees in such areas as health care, law enforcement, housing, overcoming prejudice, cross-cultural friendships.”
While the coalition no longer exists, community education is still at the forefront of efforts to smooth the integration process for Worthington’s newest citizens through education classes, the Community Connectors positions, the Nobles County Integration Collaborative and other resources.
“We had to learn things about each culture and build resources to support it. Sometimes you just do things that are unconsciously competent,” admitted Fiola. “Sometimes you just do the right thing without realizing it. We are able to identify bilingual people who can be conduits to their community so we can build that trust, that relationship with these populations. … Because of the change in demographics, we’ve had to be reactive and proactive and learn things we weren’t necessarily trained to do.”
But serving such a widely diverse population isn’t the only challenge modern community education faces. Due to the current economic situation, funding sources for many programs have slowly dried up.
“It’s been the toughest grant-funding cycle the last two years,” Fiola said. “For instance, with our refugee grant, two years ago it was $117,000; last year, we got $97,000; and next year, it will be $26,000. How can you continue to meet the needs of the people? You can’t always. You work to build up supports you know are critical, and then you have to dismantle, whittle away at them.”
Collaboration, Fiola said, is key to doing more with less in these tough economic times.
“One of our core principles is to work collaboratively in the community and avoid duplication of effort,” he said. “Rather than reinvent the wheel, we need to see how we can partner, so the sum becomes greater than the parts. How can we work together and take advantage of what are oftentimes too few resources and maximize those resources?”
While once geared predominantly toward Worthington’s adult — and predominantly white — population, community education has evolved during Fiola’s tenure to serve the needs of all ages, education levels and ethnicities.
“You have to appeal to diverse needs,” said Fiola, referencing the community education catalog that details all the various offerings. “There are people who are looking for things related to a hobby, maybe to improving their computer skills for employment or to save money on their insurance by taking a 55-Alive course. … We’re always trying to reach more men, more seniors, reach people at an earlier age. The whole mission is to meet the lifelong learning needs of the entire district.”
Retirement isn’t too far off for Fiola, although he’s reluctant to name a specific date and wants to leave community education on a firm footing before he walks out the door. But once he does step away, he has plenty of other interests to occupy his time, including serving on the Historic Dayton House board, working with the Nobles County Historical Society and organizing the annual Turkey Day 10K run.
Fiola and his wife of 22 years, Judy, share a love of antiques and scour shops in their travels in search of collectibles.
“I will continue to be involved in the community,” he said about his eventual retirement plans, “and do a little antiquing on the side.”