School enters 20th year on solid financial footing
By B.C. Manion
Academy at the Lakes, a private, independent school in Land O’ Lakes, is ushering in its 20th year on the heels of a successful refinancing and with an eye for future expansion.
The school’s previous lender – the Bank of America – filed a foreclosure action in March, but dropped it in April, allowing refinancing talks to continue, according to the school.
The academy subsequently paid off its loan to the bank on July 8 and entered into replacement financing with two other entities, said Mark Heller, the academy’s headmaster. Heller would not disclose the terms of the financing. He also would not identify the lenders, citing respect for their wish to remain anonymous.
But, Heller said, the replacement loan was a good deal. The bank was happy and the school and lenders are happy, too, he said.
“The real benefit is that our total amount of what we owe is drastically reduced,” Heller said. And, if things play out right, the school could be in a posture to acquire land for an expansion that would enable it meet its needs for 100 years, Heller said.
“This is a situation that could absolutely transform the footprint and the presence of the school,” Heller said. He said it is too early to discuss particulars.
As the school gears up for the coming year, it is expecting its enrollment to exceed 400 students, its highest enrollment to date.
That’s a far cry from the school’s initial enrollment of 32 when it opened its doors in 1992.
Over the years, the school’s enrollment and physical presence have grown. It now has campuses on both sides of Collier Parkway, just north of SR 54.
The campus for the lower division is on the east side of Collier Parkway and the campus for the middle and upper divisions is on the west.
The middle and upper campus includes a lake, Spanish moss-draped trees, a converted Georgian mansion and outbuildings designed to match the architectural elements of the main house.
“We believe in the power of architecture,” Heller said, noting the environment has an effect on students.
“They’re not going to school in a plain box. They learn appreciation for design and aesthetic elements,” the headmaster said.
The attention to detail in the school’s architecture is just one example of the conscious decisions that school leaders make in setting a tone for learning and creating an atmosphere that engages students.
This is a school where all high school students must take a foreign language, where high school students are expected to conduct scientific research that goes beyond the bounds of typical high school experiences. One hundred percent of the graduates go on to college, with most accepted by their “first choice” college, school leaders say.
The school’s middle division, for grades five through eight, is broken into subdivisions – one for fifth- and sixth-graders and the other for seventh- and eighth-graders.
“If your middle school is sixth through eighth, the gulf between the sixth-grader and the eighth-grader is enormous. It doesn’t serve the sixth-graders or the eighth-graders well.”
In addition to encouraging curiosity and creativity, Academy at the Lakes emphasizes the importance of social skills.
“We have a Day of Manners multiple times a year, where we teach kids appropriate social behavior,” Heller said. “We think that’s a very important asset for them, for their future.”
Knowing how to dress appropriately is important, too, he said.
The school, which serves pre-kindergarten through 12th grade, requires uniforms through eighth-grade and has a dress code for high schoolers.
“We try to teach girls that more skin equals less power,” Heller said. “When girls err in the dress code, it’s either too tight or too short or too revealing.
“When boys make mistakes in dress code, it’s usually that it’s just too sloppy.
“We try to teach the boys to be neat. We try to teach the girls not to succumb to being too revealing in their clothes because you actually lose power when you’re too revealing.”
The school’s enrollment includes students from Odessa, Lutz, New Tampa, Land O’ Lakes, Wesley Chapel and other nearby communities. The base rate for tuition ranges from $8,925 for Pre-K3 to $17,840 for high school. Financial aid is available.
The nondenominational school’s student body is diverse.
“You cannot go to school at Academy at the Lakes and fail to have friends who are a different race, a different religion, a different ethnic background than you,” he said.
“We are a very worldly school in Land O’ Lakes.”
And, while it’s anticipating its highest enrollment ever, the school is tiny as compared to the community’s public schools.
The academy’s relatively small size works to the student’s advantage, Heller said.
“When you are in a really big situation, the chance of anonymity is much greater. There is nothing worse than anonymity for teenagers. That’s when bad things happen.
“Part of the recipe at a small private school is that every student – because we’re small – is that much more important to the functioning of the community,” Heller said. “Kids thrive when they’re important.”
For more information about Academy at the Lakes, call (813) 948-7600 or visit www.academyatthelakes.org.
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