Academy at the Lakes is fulfilling a master plan it envisioned more than a decade ago.
Shovels in hand, school officials, students and their family members recently broke ground on an 18,000-square-foot building that signals the start of the academy’s long-planned expansion.
The two-story building will house classrooms with leading-edge technology. It will have innovation hubs for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and will have an emphasis on the arts.
Community spaces, including a black box theater, will showcase performances and encourage collaborative projects to engage students, teachers and staff.
The campus redesign also includes a plaza for community gatherings. Other features include decorative fencing and new parking areas.
The project is expected to be completed by the end of this year, at an estimated cost of more than $7 million.
Significant progress has been made on raising the money needed to cover the project’s costs and additional community events are planned to continue those fundraising efforts.
“We’re breaking ground on a project that will transform the educational experience of thousands of students over the lifetime of the brick-and-mortars we will soon see rising on this very spot,” Mark Heller, head of school, said during the recent celebration.
Academy at the Lakes, at 2331 Collier Parkway, is a private, independent school with campuses on both sides of the road.
The recent groundbreaking marks the beginning of a significant expansion that is planned during the next five to seven years.
The ceremony to celebrate the beginning of the new education building also was the opening act for an afternoon of upbeat, school spirit.
Students, faculty and staff enjoyed Friday Night Fanfare, the academy’s annual winter homecoming.
Middle school and high school students played a series of basketball games inside the school’s gymnasium. Meanwhile, lines formed outside for food trucks, games, and face-painting at the academy’s McCormick Campus.
Blue and white frosted cupcakes, popcorn and school T-shirts were available.
Kinjal Patel enrolled her students in Academy at the Lakes, and later became one of the school’s first-grade teachers.
“We are one huge family,” Patel said. “Everyone looks after each other.”
She believes the school’s expansion will “solidify” that community strength.
Next phase includes athletic fields
The new education building on the McCormick Campus marks the first phase of construction.
In the next phase, new athletic fields will be added as part of the long-awaited goal of creating an East Campus on 47 acres acquired from the MacManus family in 2013.
Development beyond the athletic fields at the East Campus will be determined by the academy’s future needs.
The fields will support a range of sports including soccer, football, baseball, softball, tennis, and track and field.
The school’s FORWARD! expansion vision will evolve over the next few years as the McCormick campus expands and the East Campus is developed.
“Academy at the Lakes is one of the strongest independent schools in the state of Florida,” said John Faith, chair of the Board of Trustees, and one of the speakers at the ceremony.
“We are ready to take the next step into our bright future,” the board chair said.
Growing enrollment is a major reason for the expansion, Heller said.
“We are bursting at the seams,” he said.
The school attracts students from all over, including Land O’ Lakes, Wesley Chapel, Lutz, Zephyrhills, Trinity, and other Tampa Bay communities.
As Pasco County has grown, so has Academy at the Lakes, Heller said. He also noted the county’s new residents include employees of the hospitals and health care centers that are popping up across Pasco.
“We have so many medical people who are in our community,” Heller said. “We want Pasco to be a great place not just to live and work but to go to school. We have a really strong independent school that is competitive with anything in Hillsborough (County), and a great school culture. We’re working to make our facilities match that great program.”
A history spanning more than three decades
Academy at the Lakes opened in Land O’ Lakes 31 years ago with 32 students. Enrollment for prekindergarten at age 3 through high school has increased year by year, with current enrollment topping 500. The school anticipates that more than 600 students will be learning at academy within the next two years, Heller said.
The school’s early childhood and high school classes are at capacity, said Sue Gunther, director of admissions.
The new building will have four large classrooms, she said. Their uses will be determined based on student needs when the new facility opens.
She enthusiastically described the technology “shed” for STEM projects, and the black box theater. A balcony in the new building will overlook the lobby, and provide a gallery for student art. The school also will gain meeting spaces and workspaces for teachers, which now are in short supply, Gunther added.
Heller said the plaza will be central to giving the school a “signature visual Image.”
Lou MacManus, daughter of Lutz pioneers Cameron and Elizabeth Riegler MacManus, was among the audience members who attended the festivities.
The MacManus property will be central to the school’s future, and a legacy for MacManus’ parents.
“They’ve consistently done things that are very forward-thinking and visionary,” MacManus said, of the school. “We’re thrilled. We grew up here, so it’s wonderful to see this develop.”
Published January 31, 2024