By B.C. Manion
The crowd was amped.
Kids and adults cheered, applauded and gave standing ovations.
It was the kind of atmosphere you might expect at a buzzer-beater of a championship basketball game, the end of a fiery speech or the finale of a fabulous concert.
But this was a school assembly, and the 17 rock stars here were teachers and staff who have worked at Academy at the Lakes for 10 years or longer.
The outpouring of love and respect came during the annual Founders’ Day celebration at the private, independent school on Collier Parkway in Land O’ Lakes.
The event was an even bigger deal this year because it marked the school’s 20th anniversary, and some very special guests were on hand including the school’s founders, Richard and Connie Wendlek.
“We’re here to celebrate Mr. and Mrs. Wendlek’s incredible accomplishment,” said Mark Heller, head of school. “Academy at the Lakes exists because of Rich and Connie. It was they who took on the risk.”
Richard Wendlek expressed his delight at the school’s progress through the years.
“We’re thrilled to see the vision we had come to life,” Richard said when he took his turn at the podium. The school, he said, is evidence that “anything is possible if you put your heart and your mind and your hands to it.”
Kris Carlson began teaching at the preschool in 1988 and moved to what was originally called Academy at the Lakes Day School when it opened in 1992. It had 32 students.
She was pleased to join in the Wendleks’ quest.
“Rich and Connie had a love for the fine arts, music and drama,” Carlson said. “They were very passionate about individualizing a program so kids would be independent.”
Both of Carlson’s sons, Brian, 20 and A.J., 18, are graduates of the academy, and they surprised her by showing up at the 20th anniversary celebration to give her bouquets.
Carlson now works in admissions and coaches the girls middle school volleyball team.
When the school opened, Collier was a two-lane road and Carlson recalled one occasion when a cow wandered from its pasture and stopped traffic.
Twila Rodriguez, on the school’s staff for 17 years, recalls when she could look out her window and see a horse pasture.
The area looks much different now, and that’s partly due to the school’s growth.
Its enrollment has increased from 32 to more than 400 and now provides instruction for students in prekindergarten through 12th grade. School officials also expect to purchase more land for expansion when the timing’s right.
The Lower Division, for prekindergarten through fourth grade, is at the Wendlek Campus on the east side of Collier.
The Middle and Upper divisions are at the McCormick Campus on the west side of Collier. That site includes a lake, trees draped in Spanish moss and outbuildings designed to match the architectural elements of the main house. The McCormicks donated the house, which was originally built in 1959 and was based on George Washington’s Mount Vernon home.
Academy at the Lakes has high academic expectations.
All high schoolers must take a foreign language, and they’re challenged to conduct scientific research that goes beyond the bounds of a typical student’s experience.
The school draws students from many communities, including Odessa, Lutz, New Tampa, Land O’ Lakes and Wesley Chapel. Its base rate for tuition ranges from $8,925 for prekindergarten to $17,840 for high school. Some financial aid is available.
Besides its academic focus, the school also continues to help its students appreciate the arts and mature socially, placing an emphasis on character development, Carlson said.
The attention to the arts was evident during the 20th anniversary celebrations. Students at every grade level were engaged in singing, playing instruments or both.
“We help the kids to discover what their true potential is,” Carlson said.
As they enter a new decade of operation, school leaders are optimism about what lies ahead.
“Academy’s best and brightest days are still very much in the future,” said Cynthia Martin, chair of the school’s board of trustees.
For more information about the academy, call (813) 948-7600 or visit www.academyatthelakes.org.
Academy at the Lakes timeline
1982: Connie Wendlek opens Academy at the Lakes Preschool.
1992: Connie Wendlek’s preschool evolves into Academy at the Lakes Day School, which opens with 32 students in prekindergarten through eighth grade. Her husband, Richard, a former principal in Pasco County Schools, becomes the head of school. Connie is the music teacher.
1997: McCormick Campus opens to house a middle school.
1998-99 school year: The school adds ninth grade.
1999-00 school year: The school adds 10th grade.
2000: fifth graders move into new classroom suite on McCormick Campus.
2000-01 school year: The school adds 11th grade.
2001-02 school year: The school adds 12th grade.
2001: Academy at the Lakes Day School becomes Academy at the Lakes Inc., a nonprofit organization.
2002: The school has its first high school graduation. There are four members in the class.
2004: The new high school building opens. The structure has the same colonial touches as the middle school.
2006: Academy at the Lakes accepted into the Florida High School Athletic Association.
2008: School gymnasium opens, new sixth-grade classrooms added to the fifth-grade suite and the school introduces its fifth- and sixth-grade program.
2012: As Academy at the Lakes celebrates its 20th anniversary, it also reaches another milestone by welcoming its first Legacy students. Nicole Faulkner Armas, a member of the school’s first graduating class in 2002, enrolls her two children, Hunter and Isabella, at the school.