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ArlingtonEncore Learning marks 20 years of expanding minds

Encore Learning marks 20 years of expanding minds

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It was an initiative whose birth took its time and was not without some teething pains. But for the thousands of people who have taken classes through Encore Learning, it was a gamble that paid off with a jackpot.

“Success! Twenty amazing years!” the organization’s board president, Barbara Spangler, said during a Sept. 12 celebration marking two decades of serving local seniors with classes, affinity groups, travel and more.

The organization’s gestation period included a false start or two, but after being inaugurated in 2002, the first semester of classes came in springtime 2003. In the intervening years, there have been more than 600 college-level courses offered, taught by volunteer instructors, with more than 22,000 course enrollments from a cumulative total of 3,500 participants.

“Today’s seniors are not the seniors when I was young,” said Dr. Scott Taylor, director of the Black Heritage Museum of Arlington and one of those who have instructed courses.

Today’s instructors, he said in a 20th-anniversary video, are “more hip” and ready to fill their craniums with knowledge even in their golden years.
“That’s the key to longevity – it’s learning,” Taylor said.

Civic leader John McCracken first conceived the idea of a place for newly retired local residents to stay engaged and expand their minds, but advocates couldn’t get it beyond the planning stage. Then in stepped John Sprott, a local leader who convened others sharing a passion for the proposal and worked out logistics that brought it to life.

Sprott “was the key,” said Michael Morton, a retired Arlington Public Schools’ administrator who was in on the planning from the beginning.

Supporters convinced then-Arlington Superintendent Robert Smith to back the idea. Buoyed by contributions (McCracken donated the first $1,000), more than 100 local residents signed up off the bat, and more than three dozen of them continue to participate today.

The organization began life known as the Arlington Learning in Retirement Institute, taking its current name in 2012.

In addition to Arlington Public Schools, another partnership that has stood the test of time is with George Mason University, which provides facilities and, often, staff to serve as Encore Learning instructors.

“I’ve encouraged faculty [and doctoral students] to be active – it’s a great experience for them,” said Mark Rozell, dean of George Mason’s Schar School of Policy and Government. He noted that the high caliber of students often makes for exceptional back-and-forth during classes.

“Instructors say, ‘I came to teach a class and I ended up learning a lot,’” Rozell said.

(Encore Learning is an equal partner in the relationship, having funded multiple scholarships for Mason students in recent years.)

Some of the instructors began their Encore experience on the other side of the classroom. Among them is Peter Harnik, a veteran community leader active in park and environmental issues. He started as a student and gravitated into instruction.

“I’ve gotten a lot out of Encore, both as a student and as a lecturer,” Harnik said in the 20th-anniversary video, the product of work by Sheri Stroud and Rich West. The 20th-anniversary committee is led by Mildred Patterson, who also serves as Encore Learning’s vice president.

By 2019, the organization’s membership had reached new heights, peaking at a level that caused leadership to ease back on recruitment as some programs were at risk of being capsized by the sheer interest of members in taking part.

And then came COVID.

“Within a week’s time, we pivoted,” said Lora Pollari-Welbes, who has served as executive director since 2019. Online courses and programs became standard for two years, and going forward, a mix of in-person and “virtual” programming is likely to be the norm.

Switching to online coursework had its challenges, but “we’ve had great participation and enthusiasm,” said Pollari-Welbes. “We’ve reached out to thousands; they’re keeping their minds engaged as they age.”

Not all programs are restricted to the 50-plus cohort. “Encore Learning Presents” is a series of about two dozen programs a year that are open to the public.

The growth of George Mason’s Arlington campus – now known as “Mason Square” – in both size and scope is likely to allow for more partnerships and broaden offerings to academic areas where Encore Learning course offerings are light, such as in science.

“Keep bringing classes, and we’ll keep doing this,” Mason’s Rozell said.

• • •

For information, see the Website at https://encorelearning.net. To view the 20th-anniversary video on YouTube, see the Website at https://bit.ly/3Lc9LHG.

Participants at the 20th-anniversary celebration of Encore Learning enjoyed a reception following the program. (Photo by Richard Rubin)
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