History

The Association for Continuing Education had humble beginnings as a social, philanthropic women’s auxiliary to help the now defunct Cleveland College. But the women involved with the endeavor would prove to be spirited and energetic advocates for adult education (with impeccable endurance and wherewithal), keeping their mission alive through waves of adversity.

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Cleveland College in 1948

The Beginning: Cleveland College

In 1924, former Secretary of War Newton Baker persuaded the Cleveland Foundation to sponsor a survey of higher education. A strong advocate for adult education, Baker had a vision of creating an institution for ex-soldiers and working adults to continue or further their education. The survey results indicated a definite need. Through multiple grants and private donors, Cleveland College opened in 1925 in downtown Cleveland under the direction of Western Reserve University (later known as Case Western Reserve University).

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Newton D. Baker

The mission of Baker and school trustees was to establish an unconventional educational institution, one that provided learning opportunities for students of all ages and backgrounds. Students were given the option of earning a degree, but also to attend classes simply for the sake of satisfying their cultural, vocational, civic or personal needs. Baker’s philosophy was that education is fueled by the enthusiasm of the adult mind in search of intellectual growth, and that this process continues throughout one’s life. It is for this reason that Cleveland College established a curriculum of short, non-credit courses taught by faculty and prominent local professionals. The discussion format utilized in these classes was unconventional, but ultimately more stimulating than the typical lecture format.

During the first years of operation, Cleveland College was highly successful, quadrupling enrollment in just four years. However, the societal tolls of war and competition from other learning institutions made for a difficult road that eventually led to its closure.

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1950 Women's Association (Grazella Shepherd standing top, left)

The Women’s Association

In 1931, amid a challenging time for Cleveland College, the wife of Newton Baker pulled together a group of civic and social leaders to form a women’s auxiliary. The original mission of the Women’s League, as it was named, was to help raise funds for the college, stimulate the social life of its faculty and students and create a sense of community. The group was later named the Women’s Association of Cleveland College.

Mrs. Grazella Shepherd, a woman who shared Newton Baker’s philosophy that learning should continue throughout one’s life, joined the college as director of the General Education Division in 1940. This position also included leadership over the Women’s Association, in which she found a group of very bright, gifted women, and a unique opportunity for creating educational innovation. The group soon became a platform for testing and developing highly experimental methods of teaching.

Grazella Shepherd’s Lecture Series

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Grazella Shepherd

The first endeavor Mrs. Shepherd proposed was a lecture series, sponsored by the Women’s Association that would help Cleveland College raise its public visibility. The first series was held in 1938. It proved so successful that, by the end of the year, they had exhausted the pool of academic talent at Cleveland College. The Lecture Committee, with brilliant insight, decided to contact the alumnae associations of other colleges to get them involved. Both the colleges and alumnae were delighted to participate.

The Lecture Planning Committee was expanded to include Grazella Shepherd as chairman and president, supported by one appointed representative from each alumnae association and two additional delegates from the Women’s Association. Responsibility for arranging lecturers was rotated amongst the participating alumnae clubs and each lecturer was asked to make a presentation based on a general topic of importance, chosen by the Planning Committee.

Lectures were held each Monday in October in downtown Cleveland. Attendees enjoyed lunch after the morning presentation, then gathered into small discussion groups. The series attracted capacity crowds for three decades, requiring the Shaker Rapid Transit to run extra cars on the days they were held!

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1940 Lecture Series planning committee

The relationship that developed between the Women’s Association and Western Reserve University, as a result of the Lecture Series, was quite unique. (There weren’t any other volunteer organizations in the country working cooperatively not just with its own university, but also with other learning institutions.) The Women’s Association became quite a valuable asset to WRU, as here was a large group of volunteers, most of whom were not connected in any way to the university, working for its benefit.

Some of the colleges involved with the lecture series over the years include Smith, Vassar, Wells, Wellesley, Connecticut, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Radcliffe, Barnard, Randolph-Macon, Goucher, Wheaton, Flora Stone Mather, Michigan, Chatham, Oberlin, Hiram and Wooster Colleges. Several alumnae clubs are still sending representatives to the Lecture Day Committee and providing speakers when it’s their turn, even though their clubs are no longer active.

In the 1970’s, attendance at the lecture series events began to decline. The number of lectures was cut to two per month, with two lectures per day, before evolving into the annual Lecture Day in 1978, which is still held today.

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As president of the General Education Division of Cleveland College, Grazella Shepherd was also charged with developing a curriculum of short, non-credit discussion courses. Starting in 1974, the creative and adventurous Shepherd allowed the Women’s Association to design and promote classes that were to be conducted in members’ living rooms by non-professional teachers. As discussion leader, Grazella Shepherd set the standards for group learning and pushed her motto of “accurate reading, creative listening and responsible speech.” The success of these small-scale experiments led to testing on a larger scale, and eventually grew into a project the press dubbed “Living Room Learning” (now known as Off-Campus Studies).

Shepherd led the Women’s Association in the formation of an Education Committee, whose duty was to support the expanding Living Room Learning program. It was the committee’s responsibility to promote and schedule classes and evaluate courses and teacher training, while Shepherd hand-picked and trained the lay-teachers, later called leader-teachers, who would guide those classes. The intimate and highly interactive format of the program was quite a sharp contrast to the passive learning typical of credit college courses, so leader-teachers were chosen based on their level of infectious enthusiasm and their ability to facilitate stimulating discussion.

By 1957, the Living Room Learning program became the primary mission of the Women’s Association. The success of this groundbreaking program was a direct result of the hard work and dedication of its volunteers, who supported every facet of the program from its inception. While serving as crucial liaisons between the Women’s Association, the university, leader-teachers and course attendees, they helped cultivate and sustain Grazella Shepherd’s impressive vision.

Discussion Day

Discussion Day is another highly successful program that was developed by the Women’s Association as a complement to Living Room Learning. Launched in 1963 as an annual event, the objective of Discussion Day was to help participants sharpen their perceptive reading and discussion skills and to increase literary knowledge and understanding. The event included small group discussions of a carefully chosen piece of literature, facilitated by selected group leaders, followed by lunch, then a lecturer whose field of concentration is related to the chosen subject matter. Discussion Day is still being held today using this same format.

Transition to ACE

In 1954, after years of attempting to stay afloat through a range of hardships, including radically reduced support from Western Reserve University, Cleveland College was shut down. However, considering the history of its relationship with the Women’s Association and the proven success of the Living Room Learning program, WRU committed to short-term financial support in order to allow the association time to make its program self-sustaining. With Cleveland College out of the picture, there was no longer any institution offering non-credit courses for adults, so the importance of keeping the association and its programs alive was acutely evident.

For a short time after this transition, the Women’s Association was renamed the Women’s Association for Continuing Education. But when the decision was made to open membership up to men as well, the name was appropriately refined to the Association for Continuing Education (ACE). With an influx of new members in 1995, the Living Room Learning program’s name was changed to Off-Campus Studies so as to reduce confusion regarding the program.

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Carolyn Leitch (right) headed the Book Sale for over 25 years

The Book Sale

The Women’s Association held many events over the years in an attempt to raise money to support the Cleveland College during its struggle to stay afloat. The Book Sale proved to be the most successful of these. It was initially begun as a book exchange in 1946. Local celebrities auctioned off books that were donated by the association’s members and their friends. The Book Sale and its number of volunteers grew steadily from its inception, bringing in over $8,000 in 1974. Volunteers collected, sorted and boxed books, often out of their own garages and basements.

book-sale-1Over the years, the annual Book Sale has continued to attract large crowds of people. Today, it is one of the largest book sales in the Midwest and is a destination spot for collectors and dealers from around the region. It’s not just the size of the sale and selection of books that attracts people, but also the knowledgeable volunteers and the discrimination with which they sort and organize the books. Valuable and rare books are often found in amongst the donations. It is the job of volunteers to meticulously research the value of the books so as to price them appropriately. Proceeds support ACE programs and underwrites an annual contribution to Case Western Reserve University.

Conclusion

Throughout the years, ACE has been driven by the immense passion and determination of dedicated leaders and volunteers. Because of this, it has persevered through the many challenges and iterations to become the successful, self-sustaining organization we know today. Throughout its long evolution from the women’s auxiliary into ACE, one thing has always remained constant—a deep passion for and commitment to adult education.