Encore Learning's History
In recognition of Encore Learning’s 20th anniversary, below is a narrative of our first 20 years of providing high-quality courses, clubs and Special Events for those over 50. We are proud of our history and excited about our future! We are grateful to volunteers who wrote this narrative history, Bob Chatten who wrote about our first decade and Jody Goulden who wrote about our second decade.
Encore Learning's First Decade History
There comes a time in the history of an organization when the idea behind it seems so manifestly compelling that its success is taken for granted by its current day beneficiaries. The confluence of key individuals and decisions and circumstances of the moment – and luck – often make the difference and then fade before incremental success. That assuredly is the case with the adult education program which became Arlington Learning in Retirement and eventually Encore Learning. Long-time community leader John McCracken unsuccessfully sought funding for such a program from the Arlington Foundation twice in the late 1990s before withdrawing $1000 of his own for a nest egg.
McCracken had been chair of a Board of Visitors to the Arlington campus of George Mason University and later recalled that in return for a $5,000,000 Arlington County bond issue to finance construction on the campus, the university agreed to “provide community benefits” to Arlington residents. These ultimately materialized in a formal agreement that the benefits were to include classroom space for ALRI, available during daylight hours.
In March 2002 he sent a letter inviting individuals and representatives of potentially interested sectors of the Arlington community to meet in the old Kann’s department store building, next door to the present GMU on Fairfax Drive, and discuss the creation of a new program to fill an adult education gap he saw in existing programs. Forty responded: interested activists and key individuals from County Board Chairman Chris Zimmerman to representatives of Arlington Public Schools, Arlington Parks and Recreation, George Mason University and the already functioning Fairfax Learning in Retirement program.
Former Ambassador John Sprott, among the invitees, was restive in recent retirement from the Foreign Service. In addition to service abroad, he also had been Acting Director of the State Department’s educational arm, the Foreign Service Institute, which had its own building in Rosslyn. Within six organizational months, he became ALRI’s first president.
Building on an Idea
The idea, put simply, was to establish a volunteer-run organization offering college-level classes taught by pro-bono instructors to people over 50. It was not to duplicate existing programs in the school system or community college or offer “how to” courses or teach languages, all covered elsewhere. Student fees would cover operational expenses for a non-profit, non-governmental entity.
It struck an immediate chord with the source of a crucial building block, Schools Superintendent Robert Smith. He already had discussed a need to expand adult education beyond K-12 limits with Mike Morton, his long- time administrative collaborator in other school systems and now Director of Career, Technical and Adult Education for Arlington. As John Sprott later was to explain, “First, we had to figure out how to function with no office or equipment.” The support and resources the county school system was to offer in office space, catalog printing and copy machines were indispensable early contributors to ALRI “lift-off.” So later did Morton’s office give crucial assistance in registering students.
Crucial too was tapping into Arlington’s wellspring of highly educated, energetic “do-ers” to bring their energy and broad-based experience in government, finance, education, accounting, law and organizational dynamics to the enterprise. Sprott became an enthusiastic and vocal champion of these, and all volunteers, who, save for Janice Gentry in the country Schools office, had no previous experience in making such an organization function. “They need more credit than they’ve gotten. Every person’s contribution had to go together,” he said in pointing to volunteers’ early role in making ALRI more than a good idea.
Six months later on August 15, 2002, McCracken’s invitees had sorted themselves into a cadre of enthusiasts and leaders and he appointed a preliminary board with Sprott as president, Richard Barton and Doug First as vice presidents and Matt Adams as treasurer. Barton brought experience in government, Adams in accounting and First in organization.
Attorney Jerry Greenwald was tapped for legal advice. He was to incorporate ALRI subsequently under the Virginia Not for Profit Corporation Law and obtained a ruling from the Internal Revenue Service that a portion of dues could be deducted as a charitable contribution. He also drafted bylaws providing for a “working board” of chairs of standing committees.
It originally had been thought to affiliate the effort in Arlington with the established Fairfax Learning in Retirement, which had its own building on the George Mason University Fairfax campus. That idea was rejected by the organizers in favor of creating a stand-alone Institute, which would take advantage of Arlington’s broad assets and deep support. The Fairfax board reportedly feared that an Arlington affiliate might become a financial drain.
In mid-September, the all-volunteer board was formalized and the first meeting’s agenda brought agreement that the overall goal was to give adults a means to meet, learn and socialize. Toward that end, they had to decide what kind of courses to offer and exclude, to identify course development people and to solidify the new Arlington Learning in Retirement Institute’s affiliation with George Mason University and the Adult Education Division of Arlington Public schools. McCracken became the board’s “member without portfolio.”
With a base of 98 members, the board declared, “We will launch a limited class offering in April 2003 and expect to offer a full curriculum in the fall.” Sprott said that the founders estimated a minimum of 250 members would be necessary for ALRI success.
In the first week of December, 2002, the board expanded to include Ann Holmes, Jeanne Sprott and Sharon Bisdee as public relations co-chairs, Andrea Vojtko as volunteer committee chair and Lynda Adamson as secretary.
On January 17, 2003, ALRI went public, opening its first full calendar year with an open house in the former Kann’s Department Store building, where John McCracken had convened his first group of potentially interested invitees. Arlington’s member of the Virginia House of Delegates, James Almand, was invited on new, official ALRI stationery to attend and hear remarks by Arlington Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Robert Smith and George Mason University Provost Peter Stearns.
As organizational needs were sorted out, the year brought adjustments with McCracken leaving the board in February to chair a nominating committee and Jeanne Sprott and Sharon Bisdee shifted focus to an evident need for membership development. The key ingredient in meeting that need was the decision by Mike Morton, whose responsibilities included the schools’ Adult Education Division, not just to publish the ALRI catalog but also to incorporate its contents into the county’s Adult Education Catalog, which went to every household in Arlington. When people responded, Morton’s staff signed them up and banked their enrollment fees. “That’s how we got the spurt” from near zero officially at the beginning of 2003 to 468 in 2004, Morton said.
By the first annual board meeting on June 12, 2003, the need for operational continuity was recognized by the board and Bob Chatten was asked to chair the academic committee, setting each semester’s curriculum and instructors and organizing the course catalog. Ken McLean was to head an information technology support group.
ALRI celebrated turning two in September 2004 with 450 paid members and 91 active volunteers, up from 30 in 2003. Marjorie Varner was named as ALRI’s first employee, initially serving part time. By the following year, George Mason University became a core asset with classroom space offered at no cost. A total of 30 courses in seven academic areas were listed for spring and fall semesters. Dues had been set at $55 a year, plus $45 a course (Fairfax LRI dues were $275, including unlimited course enrollment). The 2004-2005 budget was $63,000 and the administrator’s “wages” were changed to “salary.”
Growth continued. By the annual meeting in June 2007, 58 courses were offered to 607 members over the two semester cycles and there were two or three special events a month. As office space was granted and being fitted out at the school system’s Clarendon Education Center (CEC), a former Sears Roebuck building on Clarendon Blvd., work began moving from volunteer homes. Much needed new classroom space became available at WETA in Shirlington and Marymount university. Outreach for new members and public awareness extended to presentations at civic associations and tables at farmers markets and the Arlington County Fair. Annual supplements continued to scholarships for Arlingtonians in honor of the foundational work by John McCracken and Janice Gentry of the School Board offices, both of whom had died before the first classes were offered.
The 2007-08 winter newsletter noted that the law firm of Sher, Cummings and Ellis had volunteered to act as legal counsel. Joint sponsorship was negotiated with Arlington Central Library for Meet the Author and other lecture series, with the only caveat being that ALRI events in the library should be open to the public.
Marjorie Varner was joined in the administrative office by Donna Banks and new offices were opened in room 304 of the CEC. Of the 30 special events offered during the year, member interest sometimes exceeded available slots. A breakfast club discussion group joined five other clubs already meeting regularly. Fall enrollment had hit 600.
Discussions began to drop “retirement” from the name of the organization in order to broaden appeal, which continued to lag in the minority community and in South Arlington. Meetings were held with Hispanic leaders, trying to expand membership in their community as part of the ALRI’s Community Advisory Council. The Council’s broad outreach efforts were chaired by original board member Richard Barton. The ALRI website became operational and 60 percent of member dues and course enrollment fees came through it.
As the 10th anniversary was celebrated on March 2, 2012, ALRI officially became Encore Learning. To mark the transition, a new look design and creative expertise were donated by Reingold, Inc.
Encore Learning inherited from ALRI more than 750 members who were being offered about 30 courses in each of two semesters a year. Three to four special events were being scheduled regularly and eight clubs met to serve members’ interest. But the core of the organization’s appeal, and why membership continued to grow, was the spectrum of courses offered. The half dozen or so shifting members of the academic committee met the challenge twice a year by devising a varied curriculum taught by people they knew, or knew of, or authoritative spokespersons on subjects or organizations of interest. Instructors had to be identified, tracked down, educated about ALRI and asked to speak for free. Other ALRI volunteers often filled the bill, not having to be persuaded that compensation laid in having serious, experienced adults as their students. The hardest courses to organize, but often the most successful in attracting students, were ones like International Hot Spots and Great Court Cases, where a separate authority was found for each of six to eight presentations. Star lecturers emerged, causing waiting lists to sign up year after year to hear Dr. Tom Connally on medicine and health and Tom Wukitsch on Roman history or Steve Dachi on political Islam and global affairs and John Edward Niles on opera.
The John McCracken Scholarship continued to honor the founder’s early initiative and two other scholarships had been established with the Arlington Community Foundation for graduates of Arlington Public Schools to attend George Mason or Marymount universities.
Halfway to next year’s twentieth anniversary, ALRI/Encore Learning had achieved a robust livelihood. McCracken’s foundational nest egg was repaid early.
This Encore Learning Ten Year History was written by Robert Chatten, Spring 2021. Click here for a link to this Encore Learning First Decade History.
Encore Learning's Second Decade History
Highlights of 2012-22
In 2012, members held a party to celebrate the end of Arlington Learning and Retirement Institute’s first decade and the beginning of the second decade with a new name: Encore Learning. President John Sprott summed up our past and future to a local reporter: “The focus remains on promoting life-long learning and personal growth.”
Ten years later that focus continues stronger than ever as a volunteer-run organization offering college-level classes taught by pro-bono instructors to people over 50. It has grown and refined itself; hundreds of seniors have taken courses and partaken of its many programs; and it survived the pandemic. So in 2022 Encore Learning began a new decade on a firm base for change, growth and expansion.
The numbers help explain the Encore Learning evolution during its second decade. We had 747 members in 2012, peaked in 2019 with 1,050 and remain strong at 860 in 2022. We offered 30 classes each semester in 2012, a number which grew to 35 in-person and virtual classes in 2022. It has provided courses in subjects as varied as global hot spots taught by former ambassadors, cybersecurity, music in the District of Columbia, Islam from Muhammad to modernity, area parks, Impressionism, medicine through the ages and the Bill of Rights.
The number of clubs grew to ten. Special events thrived, averaging four a month. There were art- and museum-focused tours, lectures by journalists and professors, and film previews. In 2013 we moved from offices in the Clarendon Education Center to new ones in Arlington Public Schools (APS) Sequoia Building. We tried holding classes in different locations, but mostly settled into classroom space generously provided by George Mason University.
Some changes – like leadership – were to be anticipated
John Sprott, the founding president, led Encore Learning until 2013. Under his direction ALRI established itself as an important resource for residents seeking both intellectual growth and community.
Art Gosling, who became the organization’s second president, served from 2013 to 2020. Under his leadership, Encore Learning increased its membership, course offerings and social opportunities for members. Electronic distribution of annual membership materials began as did electronic voting for new board members and for changes to by-laws. New sites were found for classes, as well as larger classrooms for the most popular courses. Waiting lists eased the registration process.
When Tom Adams was elected to lead the organization in May 2020, he had already worked closely with Gosling and Barbara Spangler, who with Adams had served as a vice president. They had faced the formidable task of replacing Marjorie Varner, the stalwart executive director for 15 years. She left in 2019, and the three recruited the talented Lora Pollari-Welbes, who continues in that position.
Barbara Spangler was elected president in May 2022 and leads the organization into its third decade.
Some changes during the second decade were evolutionary
Technological advances had already changed Encore Learning. Before 2012 members completed paper course registrations and mostly paid by checks. Security issues arose, and online registrations became the way to go. By 2015, Encore Learning hired a communications and data management specialist, and effective with the 2018-19 fiscal year all members were required to provide email addresses. Though provisions were made for those slower in transitioning to online, Encore Learning now communicated electronically with members. The newsletter went electronic in 2013 and after 2020, printed course catalogs ceased to be. After extensive planning and research, a new membership and registration system was launched in 2016. The website was redesigned in 2013 and again in 2021.
Then came the unexpected – COVID-19!
No one could have predicted a world-wide pandemic and how it would affect Encore Learning. When it hit in the spring of 2020, classes were underway. Most had to be canceled and refunds made. During the next two years, membership declined from 1,050 to near 900, and expenses exceeded revenue. Fortunately, Encore Learning received two government loans (later converted to grants) designed to keep businesses afloat during COVID. “When I first was on the board, our biggest problem was space,” said Tom Adams. COVID changed that.
COVID could have taken down a lesser organization, but the strong staff and IT committee volunteers provided the support to create a virtual organization. Encore Learning pivoted quickly to virtual courses, offering four courses in Spring 2020 and then a full lineup for the Fall 2020 term, with all virtual plus two outdoor courses. Barb Spangler and Jeanne LaBella were the co-chairs of the Academic Programs Committee that autumn, and LaBella credits IT co-chair Marty Suydam and Executive Director Lora Pollari-Welbes for the rapid response to this unprecedented challenge. COVID’s silver lining was that many members preferred virtual classes, and future course schedules will include both virtual and in-person (and some hybrid) classes. Before the pandemic members had requested virtual classes and that was declined, but the pandemic made it a necessity.
By spring 2021 Encore Learning emerged with a full schedule of online classes, but somewhat fewer members. The one advantage for many? There were no limits to student numbers for some of the more popular classes; capacity increased with virtual classrooms. Via Zoom, that increasingly essential tech tool, instructors lectured from their homes, and members at home could still keep their minds engaged during the isolation. It was not like the pre-COVID Encore Learning, where members could see and talk in person with instructors and members and share after-class conversations and coffee with classmates, but it worked – and there were no parking problems.
Some of the clubs ceased for a time – it’s difficult to kayak online – or went virtual. Because it occurs outside, the Kayak Club could resume in 2021 once the boathouses reopened. Special events, however, were rethought and repackaged virtually, offering a full online schedule with increased capacity and speakers from outside the region. Members were able to “tour” museums here, “travel” to art museums around the country, and continue to hear presentations by authors and scholars. To support a virtual organization, the staff grew.
And life went on
Encore Learning remained a volunteer organization with dedicated members/volunteers working within a vital committee structure. Volunteers, led by a strong officer slate and dedicated support staff, kept the organization alive, COVID or no COVID, during its second decade. The volunteer-run committees, with the support of a strong and expanded professional staff, continued to be Encore Learning’s backbone. Here is what those committees did in the last decade and how they did it.
Academic Programs. The committee created a schedule of 30-40 courses each semester, recruiting volunteer instructors with passions for teaching. Instructors were compensated with a one-year membership in Encore Learning and the opportunity to take up to three courses each term. In spring 2022, Encore Learning offered 315 hours of instruction, virtually and in-person. Student attendance that semester reached 7,000 instructional hours.
Some instructors taught for years: the late Tom Connally and his medical-related classes; Tom Wukitsch on ancient history (40 classes); and Bob Stone on the Civil War (32 classes). Other long-time instructors included Sarah Parks, estate planning; D Ohlandt, theater appreciation; Karl VanNewKirk, Arlington history; and Scott Wood, music. Global Hot Spots remained Encore Learning’s most popular class, filling in-person classes with a maximum of 70 and twice that number virtually. Each class featured a different speaker, many of whom were current or retired diplomats with first-hand experience in their topic countries. The committee also introduced new instructors and new courses each semester.
Information Technology (IT). Over the decade, Information Technology support was led by Steve Spangler and Marty Suydam, and later co-chaired by Marty Suydam and Richard Rubin. ALRI’s original registration system had been created by member Ken McLean, who developed a professional, but maintenance-intensive system that worked well for the first decade. “But we were a 'mom-and-pop’ IT organization," says Marty Suydam. By 2014 change was needed and we began the process of maturing from volunteer-only support, and locally-developed systems (e.g., website, and course registration and management), to professional software and contractual support.
IT Committee membership ranged from two to six, depending on needs, but emphasized technical competency. By the decade’s end the committee no longer developed or ran software but provided technical support to staff. Once COVID occurred, the committee had a pivotal role in development, training and implementation of the virtual learning component of program implementation. Working with staff, it tested systems and determined the ease and feasibility of Zoom for classes, meetings and special events. That meant gaining acceptance from instructors, staff and members and teaching everyone to feel comfortable with the system, said Suydam. “We set up group sessions for instructors and held their hands so that the quality would really be good,” he said. Classes needed a new type of class aide, a virtual class aide (VCA) who could deal with the tech issues of online learning. The IT committee set up training and “hang-outs” where VCAs could ask questions and develop their competence.
“The first year of COVID was a blur,” said Suydam. “We all became full-time employees making the systems work. All contributors, volunteers and staff, made it a success...We stretched and pushed our limits on what we could do… There were no heroes; it was a great team collaboration.” This effort became very rewarding as we realized that for many members meeting on Zoom was one of the few connections they had outside their homes during a challenging time.
Being virtual gave volunteers an opportunity to work on rebranding and the website. The IT Committee, membership committee and staff worked with a web designer to launch a new look in the summer of 2021.
Special Events. "Our committee is as good as its members, and there have been so many amazing contributors,” said Kris McLaughlin, who succeeded the late Earle Young as chair of the Special Events Committee. Throughout the second decade, each month the committee organized several lectures, panel discussions, tours and film screenings to provide extra enrichment. A 2015 tour at the National Gallery of Art, Creative Imagination in Florentine Renaissance Painting, was among many of the excursions taking advantage of local cultural resources. Another tour was to Hillwood Museum for an exhibition of Konstantin Makovsky’s works centered on his “A Boyer Wedding Feast.”
The Special Events committee also developed a close partnership with the Arlington Public Library, which resulted in many well attended co-sponsored events held at the Library. McLaughlin was particularly pleased with two library programs. One screened a film on the 1970 killings at Kent State during the Vietnam War era on May 4th, 2020, the 50th anniversary of the event. The second explored gender language and power in 2020 and beyond. Librarian Diane Kresh moderated the panel that included three professors, two from American University and another from George Mason University.
“Fortunately for us we didn’t skip a beat because of COVID,” said McLaughlin, reflecting on her committee’s successes since spring of 2020. With assistance from staff and the IT committee, the switch was smooth.
Class Aides. If you went to a smooth-running class during Encore Learning’s second decade, you could probably thank a Class Aide. Class aides managed most communications with class members, helped the instructor duplicate and distribute class materials, and dealt with projector or microphone problems. The Class Aide committee members recruited and trained two Class Aides for each of the 30-34 classes each semester.
By 2017 there were 14 committee members and changes in communication technology were altering the Class Aide role. The days of xeroxing and hand-outs were over. Using a new online program, staff could post class materials on a member’s web page and send notices to the class. When COVID’s arrival accelerated the switch to virtual classes, the IT committee trained virtual Class Aides to use Zoom and provide technical back-up.
“The IT committee and the Encore Learning staff were essential in moving smoothly to virtual classes,” said Gail Massot, Class Aide co-chair. Once classes resumed in-person, Class Aides were key to ensuring a safe classroom environment. Whether in-person or online, Class Aides continued to give administrative and technical support to instructors, and facilitated questions and discussions at appropriate times during the classes. The committee ended the decade with a bank of trained aides ready to assume more tech-related responsibilities required of both virtual and in-person courses. “There are some perks to being a Class Aide, but if you ask the volunteers what they like about the role, they will tell you that they enjoy getting to know the instructor, making new friends in the class and helping an organization they love,” Massot added.
Publications. If you never found a typo or error in a course catalog in the past decade, it’s because of the careful work and many keen eyes of the Publications Committee members. When the decade began, course catalogs were printed and mailed each semester. Becky Reddick and Carolyn Gosling served as managing editor and members of the committee edited and proofed the course proposals provided by the Academic Program Committee (APC). The last printed catalog for Spring 2020 was delivered just as COVID arrived.
By 2022, members received catalogs electronically. The content was the same – course descriptions, introductions of instructors and the semester calendar – but the production process changed. Now a staff communications specialist receives APC course descriptions and sends them to the committee chairs, Millie Lawson and Ann Kaupp. Then 10 volunteers – broken into five pairs of an editor and proofreader – go to work. After the communication specialist reviews the edited material, it is checked once more by the committee chairs; another editor, Bill Reilly; and executive director Lora Pollari-Welbes. Because the course information is online and not in hard copy, it can be updated as needed, which has been a necessity during the pandemic.
Membership. In 2012, the committee members were doing what they had long done: recruiting new members at Encore Learning in-person class previews. Previews were publicized, and they drew not only current members but prospective members as well. The committee had informational tables and members who were happy to talk up Encore Learning. It worked. Membership grew.
When COVID-19 forced cancellation of in-person activities, Encore Learning pivoted to online programming, offering classes virtually. The in-person course preview also went online, and with that change, the Membership Committee lost a major venue for recruitment.
In 2021, the committee began to experiment with ideas on how to recruit new and more diverse members. “By 2022, in response to COVID’s impact, we had learned to think differently,” said Kate Mattos, committee chairperson. “Along with the whole organization, committee members showed impressive creativity. We adapted, stretched our thinking and tried new ways to attract members. We hope that what we learn will serve Encore Learning into the future.”
Volunteer. Some 15-20 persons served on the Volunteer Committee helping spread the word about Encore Learning. They distributed catalogs and materials to three locations in the community and talked to those showing an interest. The move to electronic publications and COVID forced a suspension in activity. Now led by Anne Werner, the committee will restart its efforts this fall with the distribution of a flier about the fall 2022 courses.
Community Advisory Council. Stalwarts in Arlington civic, political and community life served on the committee. Chaired for the first few years of the decade by Richard Barton and then by Christine Milliken, it offered Encore Learning connections to the political and education communities.
Giving Back to the Community
Between 2012 and 2022, Encore Learning added three scholarship funds to the two that were supported previously. All five focused on the Arlington community. We continued our support for the Janice Gentry Fund, which helps low income Arlington residents pay the fees for career and technical training. We also increased our contributions to the Encore Learning Scholarship Fund, which goes to an Arlington County public high school graduate planning to attend either Marymount University or George Mason University. This fund was renamed the Arthur W. Gosling Fund in 2020 to honor our late President Art Gosling.
The three newer funds connected Encore Learning directly to George Mason University. The John T. McCracken Memorial Endowment goes to an undergraduate at George Mason who graduated from an Arlington County public high school and who demonstrates community and civic engagement in Arlington County. The George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government Alumni Scholarship Fund awards scholarships to graduate students at the Schar School, and the third, the Dr. John T. Sprott Encore Learning Scholarship Fund, gives a scholarship annually to a graduate student at George Mason pursuing a degree in government, policy or international affairs. The latter scholarship was established in 2014 for a ten-year period to honor founder and longtime President John Sprott when he stepped down from being President.
“We had a few bumpy years with COVID-19, but we survived and are stronger,” said Barbara Spangler, the new President of Encore Learning. “We’ve demonstrated our ability to provide intellectually stimulating programs, clubs, and Special Events despite challenges. Who knew we’d become Zoom experts? We’re ready for the next decade!”
Remembering the Amazing Ambassador Sprott
by Thomas C. Adams, Encore Learning President, December 2021
I first met Ambassador John Sprott when I joined the Board of Encore Learning in 2018. At that time, he had become an ex officio member of the Board, having completed his dozen or so years as our first and longest serving President. I, and all other members of the Board, including then-President Art Gosling, found John’s continued participation on the Board invaluable, and sought John’s views on how to address the issues that came before the Board. John had a very kind voice, but he spoke with authority and on more than one occasion his advice saved us from making a serious mistake.
Encore Learning might not have survived in its early years or even gotten off the ground had John not willingly thrown his organizational skill and ability to work harmoniously and effectively with a wide variety of individuals into this new continuing education organization.
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