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Program Improvement through Adult Leadership Training

by Katherine Hansen

Are you looking for a way to cultivate adult learner leaders in your program while at the same time improving upon your program offerings? Virginia has been instrumental in piloting VALUEUSA’s Leadership Training for Adult Learners based on Margaret Patterson’s award winning research on student involvement in program improvement. By all accounts, this training initiative is bringing a new level of excitement and innovation to our state.

During two half-day training sessions, adult learners practice workforce readiness skills with support from program staff. Together, they outline a program’s organizational structure, evaluate program strengths and needs from their perspective, identify a priority improvement need, and create a viable project plan using critical thinking and organizational skills. The plan is then implemented over the following months. This training initiative benefits learners with proven evidence of workforce skills that they can use on résumés and in job interviews. Additionally, it helps programs foster a student-centered program design, as well as offer a roadmap for long-term application that can improve recruitment and retention.

According to Marty Finsterbusch, Executive Director of VALUEUSA, training creator, and adult learner himself:

“Programs that have implemented what they learned through our Leadership Training report that there is a level of energy in the program not present beforehand. They also report that by working in partnership with learners for a more consumer-driven operation, learner involvement has enhanced recruitment, retention, resources, and reform.” – VALUEUSA Leadership Training Overview

This is underscored by our Virginia adult education program staff who have participated in pilots across the state. Debbie Hamrick, Region 12 Franklin County Adult & Career Education Coordinator, shared, “What we loved about the training is that the students were empowered. The students share that they learned so much about our local program and that they feel much more confident about their educational journey!”

Their adult leader group identified out-reach as their overarching program need. They named their group COACH (Coalition to Open Adult Career Horizons), with a mission of spreading the word about their adult education program. The attendees of this particular training were comprised of adult learner and community leaders. Together, they came up with ways Franklin County Adult & Career Education could partner with stakeholders to let people know about the programs they offer. They have since created flyers that were paired with takeout orders from a local restaurant and are in the process of making tabletop displays for doctor’s offices, with a next step of making banners. The adult learners are not only demonstrating leadership within their program, but also becoming visible as leaders in their community.

Dr. Fontaine Ferebee-Johns of Region 20 Chesapeake Public Schools Adult & Continuing Education was enthusiastic about the experience in which her adult learners participated. “I feel that the training was very beneficial in that our students now know that they have a voice and we will act on their concerns.” The project that her adult learners identified as most pressing was to get their poorly-maintained and dangerous parking lot repaired—aka, Project Parking Lot. Alice Graham, Region 20 Program Manager thinks, “This training is great!” She has already planned to offer the sessions to her Portsmouth adult learners and is excited to see what they come up with.

The Virginia Adult Learning Resource Center is also very committed to seeing this opportunity develop and grow. Our staff has been working with VALUEUSA to design and test a train-the-trainer curriculum that we hope to roll out to all interested service providers. Moreover, VALRC manager Joanne Huebner hopes that “at some point we can even connect our Virginia adult learner leaders with one another in order to form an ever-growing and ongoing statewide coalition”.


VALUEUSA is an alumni association for adult education and English literacy in the U.S. Through a grant from the Dollar General Literacy Foundation, they have put together this Leadership Training for Adult Learners, which they hope to offer nationwide.

How can you be involved in this free training?

It’s simple. Just create a cohort of adult learners and teachers/administrators from your program, with a 3:1 adult learner to program personnel ratio (for about 12–20 total participants). Then, schedule, two, four-hour blocks for the training which can be consecutive days or a week apart and allow time for project implementation. This makes for a great capstone project for any PIVA or IET program. We encourage you to give it a try!

Katherine Hansen

Katherine Hansen, M.Ed., serves as the Communications & Community Support Specialist for the VALRC. She is a certified TESOL instructor and Project Management Professional (PMP). Katherine’s career experience bridges the academic, nonprofit, and corporate worlds in global intercultural communications, teaching/training, and program/ organization development.

Learn more about VALUEUSA and hear from adult learner leaders by watching these videos on VALRC’s YouTube channel VALRC Richmond:

What is VALUEUSA? (2 min)

An excerpt from Marty Finsterbusch presenting at the Virginia Adult Education & Literacy Conference

Hear the Voices of Adult Learners Who Have Gone Beyond: Part 1 (33 min)

Hear the Voices of Adult Learners Who Have Gone Beyond: Part 2 (32 min)

At the Virginia AE&L Conference, adult learner leaders share their years of experience within the context of the current national adult education perspective. Through discussion, panelists and the audience explore the ways adult learners, themselves, think, as well as the long-term impact practitioners and programs have on them. This session challenges you to rethink how adult learners are engaged by the programs in which they participate with you.

Interview with Adult Learner Leaders (22 min)

Barbara Gibson follows up with the adult learner leaders at the AE&L conference with an in-depth interview.