‘Learn, Baby, Learn!’ The Adult School Turns 80!

Rose Bennett Gilbert, a trustee of the Adult School, reflects on the history and current programming at the Adult School, as it Celebrates 80 Years.


Learn, Baby, Learn!” would be a fitting new credo as the South Orange-Maplewood Adult School heads into its 80th anniversary year in 2013.

The school, aka SOMAS, has always kept up with the times.  So even if it sticks with its traditional “Lifelong Learning” mantra, SOMAS will go right on adapting its curriculum to the changing needs of the community.

In fact, SOMAS owes its very existence to the communities’ response to an international crisis, The Great Depression, that gripped the world in l933.  In a time of despair, when people had little hope and less money, a core of local educators got together and created a bright new local attraction, an independent non-profit school where everyone could afford classes that informed and entertained.


“It was a beacon of hope in those dark days,” says Sue Marcus, who has directed SOMAS for the past l8 years. Only the fourth director in the school’s long history, she will be retiring in May.  But SOMAS will continue on into its eighth decade as the go-to place to learn new skills and have fun.

There’s something for everyone in the curriculum, from cutting-edge classes in computer skills to classes in the ancient practice of T’ai Chi.  Students can learn to take professional-quality photos, write successful grants, grow great vegetables, and cook fabulous meals.  They can study home repair and furniture refinishing, the art of painting and the art of self-defense, music, dance …more than l80 classes altogether that draw some l,600 students every year. In addition to annual favorites, this spring offers new classes, such as Be Your Own Film Critic, Who’s Afraid of Opera, The Six Hour Art Major, Writing for the Web, Edible Decorations and How to Stage your Home for the Successful Sale

SOMAS will also be leading excursions to cultural attractions such as the Culinary Institute and Vanderbilt Mansion, Tanglewood, and the Philadelphia Flower Show.  And more on-line classes conducted via cyber space make learning easy for today’s time-strapped students.


Learning can also be serious business. SOMAS has offered a vital English as a Second Language program since 1937, and the need escalates with every wave of new immigrants.  Serving nearly 500 people from more than 45 countries each year, both ESL courses funded by the  N.J. Department of Labor and for-fee ESL courses are offered at the Adult School. 

Also to be taken seriously:  the Eva Samo lecture series, which wrestles with critical current events, and the highly touted College for a Day on April 20, which will be filled with provocative lectures by a faculty of first-rate professors from major colleges and universities.  These are classes for the curious, with no quizzes attached.


Nor does SOMAS serve adults alone.  Deeply committed to this community, the Adult School has been a springboard for programs that make local life easier and richer.  In 1974, working in coalition with other community groups, the school initiated a children’s enrichment and sports camp that now puts more fun in summer for over 1,000 children every year.  And it was the Adult School that helped form the After School Program in 1982, and, in 1991, launch the First Night New Year’s Eve celebrations that ran for 21 festive years.

Attention has been paid.  In 2000, the school was designated a “Local Legacy” by the Library of Congress, sharing the spotlight in Washington with other outstanding organizations from across the country    Closer to home, the South Orange Civic Association has honored SOMAS with its “Beloved Community Award,” and the Maplewood Township Committee officially applauded the Adult School for its achievements when it celebrated its first 75 years in 2008.

Along the way, SOMAS has also attracted a number of other fans, local supporters known as Friends.  A good thing, too, because the school operates on its own with no funding from the Board of Education.   There is a staff of full- and part-time workers who organize and administer the program, and an active Board of Trustees, volunteers all.


Fundraising ventures have resulted in still more SOMAS gifts to the South Orange-Maplewood community.  Best known is Celebrity Readings, a gala annual event that brings local theatre stars out to share their talents in an evening of great fun and entertainment. This year’s Celebrity Readings event is scheduled for Monday, Nov. 4, and will feature Norbert Leo Butz and Michelle Federer.

Also among the many upcoming events celebrating eight decades in the community will be the Adult School’s 80th Anniversary Cocktail Gala on May 4.

Meanwhile, SOMAS is currently accepting registrations for spring classes. See the full listing of course offerings and register online at www.somadultschool.org. You may also register by phone at (973) 378-7620.

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Rose Bennett Gilbert, Trustee
South Orange-Maplewood Adult School

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