SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — When Stephanie Freedman’s 6- and 8-year-old children sit down to do their homework at night, she takes a seat next to them with school assignments of her own.
The 48-year-old registered nurse from Scarborough has that evening time free for regular family homework huddles, in part, because Southern Maine Community College has launched a slate of early morning courses. In previous semesters, individuals holding full-time jobs or bound by other daytime obligations could turn only to evening classes for continued higher education learning.
“A 7 o’clock class allows me to continue on with my life without disruption,” Freedman said during one such class at the school’s South Portland campus last week. “Family time is important, and I don’t have to give that up.”
Now approximately six weeks into the community college’s experiment to reach out to early risers with 7 a.m. and 7:30 a.m. classes — as much as an hour earlier than the school had ever before offered courses — SMCC Vice President Janet Sortor said the sun-up crowd fits squarely in one of the institution’s target demographics. A recent school survey indicated that nearly one- third of the community college’s students have full-time jobs.
“At this point — we are coming up on the middle of the semester — the early morning classes appear to be doing well,” Sortor told the BDN in an email. “Retention looks good with few, if any, students withdrawing. Students who have daytime work or family commitments are a population that we want to be sure we are serving by a breadth of scheduling options.”
Community college officials reported that nearly 80 students signed up for the early classes in the initiative’s pilot launch in the current semester, and Sortor said the school hopes to expand offerings in the fall to continue building momentum and to allow this semester’s early students to take follow-up courses.
An added benefit of the early selection that community college leaders may not have realized at the onset is the pre-workday hours also make the courses more accessible for subject matter experts frequently sought to teach them.
For instance, accomplished freelance journalist and author Sara Anne Donnelly teaches an early writing and English course at SMCC. She said she asked for the earliest time slots she could get.
“I was really happy to see the introduction of earlier classes,” she said just before starting one Wednesday morning session. “For me, it’s really helpful to compartmentalize, because I’m doing reporting and it’s really easy to get taken away by a story later in the day.”
The students in Donnelly’s class come from a wide variety of backgrounds, but those who spoke with the BDN were unified in their dogged pursuit of education in the face of demanding schedules. For those determined to continue learning — whether it’s for midcareer advancement or just starting life after high school — earlier classes seemed to make the effort a bit less difficult.
Patrick Howard, 21, of Belfast works full time as a prep cook at SMCC and said if enough classes weren’t offered around that work schedule, he simply wouldn’t be able to continue his education.
Howard, who said he needs to keep full-time hours to afford school, is either in class, working or doing homework every day from 6 a.m. until 9 p.m.
“The majority of people [who hear about my schedule] think I’m insane,” he said. “It’s not my lifestyle of choice, for sure, but I wouldn’t be able to pay for school otherwise.”
Chynna Blaney, 18, of Raymond graduated from Windham High School last year. She said her life is complicated by having a 7-month-old child, but she’s determined to pursue higher education — and an eventual career in psychology — without giving up her responsibilities as a young mother.
“I can get all my classes done early in the day, and it works with my day care,” she said.
Blaney said her earliest class in the fall semester started at 9:30 a.m.
“Last semester was harder than this,” she said. “It was later in the day, it was harder to look for a job and I was always picking my son up late.”
Freedman, the nurse and mother of two from Scarborough, said it’s important for children to see their parents continuing their education. She said sitting down with her own homework while her children do theirs makes her a good role model.
“The advantage of this is I can tell my kids, ‘You can do anything at any time in your life,’” she said.
Even as early as 7 a.m.