LLI Spotlight: Janna Overstreet, Executive Director, Lifelong Learning Academy of Sarasota, FL

By Peter Spiers

The Lifelong Learning Academy (LLA) of Sarasota, FL, was founded in 1994. While the Academy has had a long relationship with the University of South Florida (USF) and has been housed at USF’s Sarasota-Manatee campus, it is an independent 501(c)(3) organization. That’s about to change. On June 1, 2016, LLA will complete a merger with the Ringling College of Art and Design and move further toward its twin goals of being the lifelong learning program of choice in Sarasota County and contributing to the county’s economic development by helping attract retirees to the area. LLA will take a new name—the Ringling College Lifelong Learning Academy—and will be incorporated into the college’s Continuing Studies and Special Programs unit. While the Academy will initially occupy temporary space, it will eventually take up residence alongside the Sarasota Museum of Art in the rehabbed historic Sarasota High School, a classic Collegiate-Gothic style building erected in 1926. In addition to solving LLA’s space needs, the merger will enable it to expand its outreach to working boomers and its intergenerational programming.

LLA has grown by 40% in the last three years and now serves 600 members and about 2,600 other students in the last year. Members pay an annual fee of $65 and receive three valuable member benefits: early registration, a 10% discount on course fees, and three free lectures each semester. Course fees are based on their length: a one-session course costs $20, a four-session course costs $40, and an eight-session course costs $65. Full-day workshops—essentially a “course in a day”—cost $99 including lunch. LLA offers about 60 courses in the spring and fall terms, 30 in the summer, and more than 100 in the winter.

The Academy has four full-time staff members. One staff member handles finances and membership management, another handles course registration and is the main point of contact for faculty and students, and a third is project coordinator, focusing on outside contracting and marketing. Janna Overstreet is the Lifelong Learning Academy’s Executive Director.

What do you consider your top 3-5 responsibilities at LLA?

My most important job is maintaining a high level of customer service for our students. Like a concierge, if our students need us, we need to be there, whether it’s to solve an AV problem or to make sure our classes are accessible to students with disabilities. Basically, it’s constant utilization review and quality assurance.

Community relationship building is another key part of my job. This year I’m chair of Sarasota County’s Seniors Advisory Council, a panel of interested and informed parties who meet monthly to help our county commissioners stay aware of issues involving seniors and develop priorities with that population in mind. We give the commissioners an annual report with recommended policy changes and this year it was about making public transportation more accessible and inviting to seniors. They use the system less than other groups but need it more for access, for example, to healthy food choices. Seniors who no longer drive can see their food choices narrow to what’s available at a nearby drug or convenience store where the food is typically highly processed and expensive, and where produce and other fresh food often isn’t available at all. I’m also involved with other LLIs in the area in the Suncoast Alliance for Lifelong Learning. We are developing a website so that students can search course offerings across all the local LLIs by subject. The third part of my community relations portfolio is working with local media to increase the awareness of lifelong learning and positive effects. We serve less than 1% of the 55+ population and that’s not good enough.

Like other LLI directors I’m also deeply involved in curriculum development. We have a curriculum committee of more than 30 people, a group that includes 11 subcommittees by topic area. One of the benefits of being in a fast-growing area is that we have a steady supply of new members and eager new instructors. Ninety percent of our instructors are students and many are retired university faculty and business people with deep expertise. That expertise isn’t always in their career area. We have an instructor who was a neurologist who teaches not only about brain health but about history, a subject he’s passionate about. With several new instructors every term we make sure a member of our curriculum committee is in their classroom for their first term. New instructors—who are often experienced teachers but new to teaching adults—are given detailed feedback and coaching, and those that don’t respond aren’t asked to teach again.

What are some favorite courses you offer?

In our winter term we have a hugely popular course that draws fifty or more students. It’s co-taught by two retired attorneys, and they discuss every case that will be before the U.S. Supreme Court in the coming session, sharing their perspectives on what the major points are on each side of the issue, how they think the justices might respond, and facilitating a lively discussion. Over the summer they prepare a 10 to 15 page document summarizing the Supreme Court decisions and scoring their own predictions. I love this course because it keeps our students current and active in civil issues.

Our new association with Ringling will open the door to even more innovative courses. They have a broad visual arts curriculum with special expertise in areas like computer animation, and they’re building a professional sound stage. I’d love to see our students exposed to these subjects. Our future location in the old high school is right across the street from the new high school, and we’re developing plans for intergenerational programs with both high school and college students. We plan to have Academy members mentor and provide career coaching; in return the younger students will give technology coaching to our members.

Tell me about a member or members who has or have made a significant contribution to the OLLI’s success?

Bev Harms made a huge contribution to our curriculum by developing our Einstein’s Circle series. Sixteen or 17 Wednesdays every year we bring in an expert speaker on a relevant topic—extraterrestrial life, marijuana legalization, U.S.-Israeli relations—for a 40-minute presentation followed by 40 minutes of Q&A and discussion. It was her idea, her baby, and she has a small group that helps her put that all together. We have 180 or so participants each week.

While the high school is being renovated we’ll be in temporary classroom space at Temple Beth Shalom. Our member Jack Sukin made that happen for us.

But most importantly there’s been an open-minded and positive attitude about making the Ringling merger work from all of our board members. We explored a lot of different options and the collaborative process was a big part of getting us to the best possible solution

Is there another LLI you admire and have learned something from?

The OLLI at UNC-Asheville is a great model, and Susan Poole there was a great resource in the programming area. When I was in Illinois we created an association of all the LLIs in the state and got together once a month to share our trials and triumphs. It was the most rewarding experience of my professional life and immeasurable greatness came from it.

What developments do you see in the future for the Academy or the lifelong learning movement more broadly?

Younger students in their 50s and 60s look at both volunteer opportunities and courses with a different set of eyes.  They want volunteer activities that connect with their skills.  We can’t just ask anymore for a generic “office volunteer.”  People want to know exactly what the job entails and how they can contribute in a meaningful way.  This group also has more trouble committing to longer-term courses lasting six or eight weeks.  It’s not because they have a shorter attention span—they’re just busy.  They might be caring for both their parents and their grandchildren at the same time.  I think that’s why our day-long workshops have grown so popular.  We’re getting ready to mail a survey to get a better idea about the kind of programming that will attract people who are still working.  We already know these courses will have to be short and on exactly the right night of the week. 

What did you do before you came to Academy?

I have a B.A. in psychology and an M.A. in gerontology from Eastern Illinois University. I worked in a county mental health clinic supervising mental health, substance abuse, and HIV counseling staff before becoming the coordinator of workforce development for the Dislocated Worker Program in Mattoon, Illinois, where I counseled and coordinated services for middle-aged adults pursuing second careers after being laid off. Before I moved to Florida I was founding director of the Lifelong Learning Academy at Eastern Illinois University, where I still teach psychology courses via the Internet.

Where would you most like to travel to that you haven’t visited already? Why?

My grandmother was Cherokee and I’m fascinated by Native American cultures.  I’d love to visit the Southwest and at some point would like to volunteer there to serve that population. 

Is there you’ve read for pleasure recently that you would recommend to others?

I recently read “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt, a book that’s a rich portrait of human nature. It took me back to my training in psychology in a very positive way.