Editor’s note: This article was produced through the St. Lawrence Citizen Journalism Incubator (SLCJI), which provides North Country residents with the opportunity to receive training and support for conducting independent, investigative journalism projects in their communities.
For nearly ten years, from 2009 to 2018, SUNY Potsdam dedicated a department to organize and offer conferences, workshops, summer camps, non-credit programs, and training seminars to the community: the Center for Lifelong Education and Recreation, more commonly known as the CLEAR program.
Its mission statement was the following: “[CLEAR] will serve North Country residents by providing lifelong learning and enrichment opportunities, and public service and outreach events.” This program served all ages in the North Country community and was perhaps best known for its vast variety of classes. The program offered something new every year, from activities such as gymnastics and tae kwon do, to online courses in game development.
As time went on, however, the CLEAR program offered fewer and fewer courses. The 2015 course catalog listed forty-five options on the front page, with additional course offerings detailed inside. Then, by the time 2018’s spring catalog came out, only thirteen options were advertised.
In a Watertown Daily Times article from March 25, 2018, Joshua LaFave, executive director of graduate and continuing education at SUNY Potsdam who also oversaw the CLEAR program, stated, “You change what you’re offering based on enrollment.”
Andrea Malik, a resident of Colton, and a former CLEAR instructor who started teaching non-credit classes for SUNY Potsdam in the ’90s, said she has taught hundreds of students throughout the years, many through the CLEAR program. Now Malik teaches courses such as tae kwon do, qigong, tabata, and kickboxing at the Presbyterian Church in Potsdam. Classes ranged from kids of all ages to adults, and sometimes she ends up teaching adults who took her CLEAR classes as kids.
Budget issues and a sudden closure
Last August, around the time of year when course instructors begin setting up their classes, both instructors and CLEAR participants received an email from LaFave announcing the closure of the program. The email, which was sent out on August 1, stated the decision to close CLEAR was made “due to budget constraints and the need to dedicate staff to other campus priorities.” This email caught many in the community off guard, including Malik, who said, “My [CLEAR] evaluations said I was a highly valued instructor, and then to be told that way—it was like a slap in the face.”
Others, however, saw the closure coming for a while. Jay Pecora, another CLEAR instructor and professor of theatre and dance at SUNY Potsdam, said he and others at the college were not surprised by the announcement.
Pecora said, “The people who worked for CLEAR knew that there was a possibility of a close. For some people the writing was on the wall: the college is struggling financially, and enrollment’s down across the country. Even high school enrollment in the North Country has just dropped off a cliff. Up here it’s tough because regionally there’s just no growth in terms of students.”
A Watertown Daily Times article from January 28, 2019, corroborated Pecora’s statements. In the article, “St. Lawrence County Population, Student Enrollment Down,” reporter Kevin Shea states that from 2010 to 2017 the county’s population decreased by 2 percent, leading to a subsequent 7 percent decrease in student enrollment. In January 2017 Elizabeth Lewis also reported in the Watertown Daily Times article, “SUNY Potsdam Enrollment Woes Effecting School’s Operating Budget,” that the university’s enrollment had dropped 14 percent in the last decade. That drop led to a $1 million budget shortage for the 2017–2018 academic year.
Heather Wheeler, a former CLEAR instructor of family music and toddler music, and associate professor of functional keyboard at SUNY Potsdam, also suspected the program might close.
Wheeler said, “I knew a few semesters ahead of time they were struggling but found out through the email officially.”
Community responses to the decision
As SUNY Potsdam employees, Pecora and Wheeler were aware of the university’s financial struggles, and both understood actions needed to be taken. It is unclear from LaFave’s earlier comment how issues involving enrollment, whether in the CLEAR program or at the university as a whole, might have led to the decision to cut the CLEAR program. Regardless, many in the community were surprised and upset by the decision.
“I know a few people wrote letters, and weren’t happy about how the news was told,” Malik said.
The town of Potsdam sent a letter to the university on February 19, 2019, formally asking for the reinstatement of CLEAR. On the same day, North Country Now published the contents of the letter, stating, “Community members have offered to help subsidize the cost of classes to increase the accessibility to low-income community members if the registration prices needed to rise due to increased costs.”
Lisa Bradley, a health teacher at Potsdam High School and A.A.K. Middle School, participated in many CLEAR classes over the years. She spoke about the uniqueness of both the child and adult programs, but also the connections made through the programs.
“I looked forward to finding classes that would broaden my interests and provide a different type of enrichment in my life,” she said. “I feel that will be hard to replace except for maybe an online course, but it was the personal relationships I made that were the most valuable to me.”
Much of the community’s frustration with the closing of CLEAR stems from the lack of communication between SUNY Potsdam and North Country residents. Many were surprised by the closing of the program, as there was little warning about the school’s financial issues and how that could impact the program’s future.
Another issue was the lack of new information. While the town of Potsdam and Potsdam Recreation have reached out to the school about aiding in the reinstatement of the program, no actions or updates have been made.
Efforts were made to reach out to LaFave, who oversaw the CLEAR program, for this story. LaFave responded with a copy of the closing announcement letter provided to all participants and instructors last August, as well as a link to the most recent Watertown Daily Times article about the program’s closing. In that same email, LaFave wrote, “There is no additional news or information that hasn’t been made public at this time.” A follow-up email inquiring about the possibility of future updates did not yield a response.
A loss of unique programs
North Country residents know all too well the lack of resources offered in the area. Not only did the program help full-time working parents find childcare for their children after school and during the summer, but it also allowed those children to pick up a unique hobby and develop new skills at the same time. Some classes even allowed parents and their kids to learn a new trade together. While not all programs have been dissolved, such as Crane Youth Music and the Creative Arts Program, many cherished and unique courses, such as gymnastics and Parent and Child with Autism Swim, are gone with no replacement or similar option nearby.
Bradley also said, “I looked forward to seeing the offerings every semester and I feel like the community suffered a big loss with its dissolution. There are many fitness opportunities in the community, but I don't think anything else takes the place of the adult and child courses outside of the fitness classes.”
As Pecora explained it, “They [SUNY Potsdam] were losing too much money, and so it had to go, from my understanding of what happened.”
Instructors look for other options
A big attraction of the program was its low costs, making the unique courses accessible to many in the North Country. Now with the loss of the program, some instructors, like Malik, have continued to teach their courses outside of the university. The relocation has forced her to increase prices for the courses, as she must now pay for her own insurance, advertising, and rent for classroom space. Through CLEAR Malik’s courses cost participants $29 over a three-month period. With two classes a week, that came to just $1.21 a class. Today, Malik charges $15 per class, an amount Malik’s students often say is quite low for the quality of instruction they are receiving. While Malik does not want to cut people out who cannot afford it, these classes are an important part of how she makes a living.
Wheeler has also relocated her classes to the Children’s Museum in Potsdam. When asked how the community will continue to feel the effects of the program’s closure, Wheeler stated, “I can only speak to my experience with it, which was mostly with children. It’s a loss that will hopefully be filled through the community, through other places such as the Children’s Museum and the Creative Arts Program. It just means people have to be creative to [keep] programs open. It took effort to find a location and advertising, but it worked out.”
The town of Potsdam wasn’t the first to offer help to keep CLEAR open, the Watertown Daily Times reported in March 2018. As reporter Abraham Kenmore said, “The SUNY Potsdam Center for Lifelong Education and Recreation is in discussion with the village Recreation Department about possible collaborations.”
But no commitment has been made, and there has been no indication from LaFave or others that any additional updates will become available.
What was lost, what remains
It has been over seven months since the closing of CLEAR. While no updates about a potential reopening have been made, not everything from the program is lost, as some summer camps remain.
As Pecora put it, “It’s not like the opportunities have all gone away, it’s just all kind of under a different structure now… SUNY Potsdam was a clearinghouse for information and jobs. They just provided a central location where everybody knew they could go. Community members knew they could go to CLEAR to find what kind of classes were around, students knew, ‘I have a skill, let me see if there’s an opportunity to teach,’ and then faculty knew that if they wanted to start a specialized program, CLEAR would be there to guide them through the process. [It became] the one-stop shop.”
While some CLEAR programs remain, many did depend on that one-stop shop with unique and cheap courses like gymnastics, which has not been replaced and is not offered elsewhere in the North Country.
A university’s dilemma
In its university mission statement, SUNY Potsdam states it has “an abiding sense of responsibility to our region.” Some have argued the decision to close CLEAR does not reflect this statement. When CLEAR instructors and participants interviewed for this story were asked if universities have a commitment to serving their communities, they all said they believed they do.
As Wheeler reminds us, however, universities like SUNY Potsdam “have a commitment to surviving also. I don’t know what’s going on financially with the school, but I am disappointed for the community that it’s closed. But it closed to keep other things running. [SUNY Potsdam’s] first responsibility is to students and faculty/staff. It’s not something they wanted to do though. SUNY [Potsdam] values their place in the community, and it was a very hard decision.”
While many in the community are upset by the decision, they continue their search for new opportunities for recreation and personal enrichment in the area. Only time will tell if new resources, or a revival of CLEAR itself, will surface to provide the North Country with the level of unique and affordable programs its residents have come to rely on.
Banner image: Andrea Malik’s tae kwon do CLEAR class featuring Luca Pecora [second from left], daughter of CLEAR instructor Jay Pecora. (Photo courtesy of Deborah Dudley)
Remembering the CLEAR program
Author Gwendolyn Deuel (center, photo at left) was herself a participant in the CLEAR program for many years. Read more about her experiences in her recent column published by the Watertown Daily Times on May 4, 2019. (Photo courtesy of Kathryn Deuel)