Academy at the Lakes turns 25

The Academy at the Lakes students came striding off the yellow school bus, ready for action.

They’d just arrived at the Old Lutz School, and before long, they were yanking weeds, pushing wheelbarrows and spreading mulch at the historic schoolhouse, an icon in the community of Lutz.

They were also picking up branches and sticks, strewn about by Hurricane Irma.

From left, Hannah Church, Anisa Nanavati and Addison Pollock work to transport mulch from a huge pile across the yard from the Old Lutz School to plant beds closer to the school. The trio of eighth-graders from Academy at the Lakes was taking part in a service day the school organized to celebrate its 25th anniversary.
(B.C. Manion)

This crew was just one of many spending the day doing volunteer work at various locations — as Academy’s students and staff spent the 25th day of its 25th year, giving back to the community.

“Service has always been one of our core values, whether you’re a 3-year-old or a senior in high school. We provide age-appropriate opportunities for children to learn an ethic of service,” said Mark Heller, head of school.

“We need to make sure that all of our children know how to be net givers to the world, as opposed to takers from the world.

“They need to understand, and be taught, and experience how to do things that make a difference for others — and how good it feels to do that.

“That’s part of what we did on the 25th day, thanking the community that has nurtured us and sustained us over our first 25 years,” said Heller, who leads the school, located at 2331 Collier Parkway in Land O’ Lakes.

Suzin Carr, who organized the workday at the Old Lutz School, was delighted to have Academy’s help.

“Today, they’ll help clean up after the hurricane. They’ll do some mulching,” she said, pointing to a huge pile, across the schoolyard.

“That pile will be gone by the time they leave, no doubt,” Carr said.

She also appreciated the timing of the volunteer effort.

“They’ll help us get ready for our market, which is Oct. 14, the Market at the Old Lutz School,” Carr said, putting in a plug for the upcoming fundraiser.

Beth Nevel Rader and her brother, Ben Nevel, were there helping, too.

“My brother and I went to school here, one through six,” Rader said, noting her brother is the chairman of the Citizens for the Old Lutz School, a group that works to preserve the school.

“I think the kids are just awesome to come out and volunteer,” she added.

Colleen McCormick, science department chair, said Academy students routinely volunteer in the community.

“This is something that’s part of our core values,” she said.

Service is one of the core values at Academy at the Lakes, and those acts of service can be tailored to be done by the school’s pre-kindergarteners through seniors, said Mark Heller, head of school. (Courtesy of Academy at the Lakes)

That’s important, she said, because “hopefully, it instills a spirit of giving back that they’ll continue after they leave Academy.”

Kevin Crowley, who teaches video production and is the golf coach, has been at the school for 17 years.

“I can’t imagine doing anything else,” said Crowley, whose daughter attended the school, from pre-kindergarten through high school.

While one group was at the Old Lutz School, other groups were planting sunflowers, cleaning up Collier Parkway or pitching in at Feeding Tampa Bay and Metropolitan Ministries.

Heller attributed Academy’s staying power to its ability to create a culture that works on a scale “that takes great care of the individual.”

“I think there’s great power, in the small school, to unlock human potential,” he said.

In a school with a low student-teacher ratio, the teachers get to know each student “well enough to know how to motivate them to be their best and to inspire them to be their best,” Heller said.

With such familiarity, they can transmit “a sense of that joy in the journey, of how to walk through life finding things that are beautiful, and wonderful and meaningful,” Heller said.

Academy at the Lakes originally opened in 1982 as a preschool operated by Connie Wendlek, but evolved into Academy at the Lakes Day School in 1992, with 32 students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. Connie’s husband, Richard, a former Pasco County principal became the head of school.

Besides drawing students from Land O’ Lakes, the school also attracts students from Odessa, Trinity, Lutz, New Tampa, Wesley Chapel, Zephyrhills, Dade City, Tampa and other Tampa Bay communities.

The school now has more 500 students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade, in its lower division, middle division and upper division programs.

Essentially all of its graduates pursue education beyond the secondary level, with approximately 80 percent being accepted by their first-choice colleges, according to school statistics.

Heller is gratified by the school’s accomplishments during its first quarter-century, and he’s enthusiastic about what lies ahead.

“There are tremendously exciting things on the immediate horizon for Academy at the Lakes.

“We own 47 acres of undeveloped land just on the other side of Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Church,” he said.

“We have our stake of the ground right here in Central Pasco, in Land O’ Lakes. As the community grows, so too, will Academy at the Lakes, just as has happened in the first 25 years of Academy of the Lakes.

For more information about the academy, call (813) 948-7600, or visit

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. In subsequent years it added 10th grade, 11th grade and 12th grade.

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: Academy at the Lakes celebrates its 20th anniversary.

2013: Academy acquires 47 acres of land from the MacManus family.

2015: The new Lower Division playground is dedicated.

2017: Master planning for future begins.

Published September 27, 2017

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