By Kimberly Vreeland
Remember The Blob? Chances are the 1950s thriller comes to mind. However, for Academy’s Upper Division students, The Blob will instead conjure up memories of jumping off a 10-foot high wooden platform, landing on an inflated airbag, the blob, launching another student high into the air, and crash landing in Lake Aurora – the picturesque setting of Academy’s Upper Division Retreat. And while the high schoolers are blobbing in Lake Aurora, Academy’s middle schoolers are enjoying their respective retreat traditions in Academy’s gym and at Lakewood Retreat.
Inspired by Academy’s founder Richard Wendlek, Academy’s retreats began in 1995 and have continued every fall with retreats tailored for the Middle and Upper Divisions. While the retreats are division specific, the goals are the same – to set the school culture: a community. Students bond and form friendships. New students and faculty learn about Academy’s culture; returning students and faculty are renewed by it. The original retreats began at Starkey Wilderness Campground in New Port Richey. Currently, 5th and 6th graders participate in a “lock-in” in the gym on the McCormick Campus, while 7th and 8th graders visit Lakewood Retreat in Brooksville.
While some traditions are secret, one of the most anticipated and exciting traditions during the retreats is the announcement of new student House assignments. Each student’s house assignment remains a secret until the retreat at which time it is revealed, and the student is enthusiastically welcomed into his or her new house. Think Harry Potter.
The Experience Even with rich tradition come new experiences that reflect Academy’s character education extending beyond the classroom.
“The retreats kick start Academy’s character education program and set the expectations for how we treat each other in our school community from the very beginning of the year.” – John Pitcairn, Middle Division Director
Senior Skyler Boynton appreciated the rock climbing. “I think that rock climbing was the best bonding experience for the seniors,” said Skyler. “We encouraged each other to keep going. Without Kenni [Kennedy Lachicotte], I would not have finished it.” Kenni added: “If everyone is not working together you can’t do it. Two spotters help you climb over a ladder, a belay team helps pull you up the wall, and the rest of the class encourages you.”
Kristina Trinh experienced her first retreat as a senior. “Our class is very diverse, so the time spent together brings us closer with those we were already friends with but also creates new relationships and friendships.” The experience is powerful for teachers as well. New to Academy science teacher Ms. Sheri Mahoney shared: “I have a better idea now of how students and faculty function as a community and not just as students and teachers. My experience at the retreat confirmed that it was best choice ever to join this community.”
Mr. Shawn Moore, the Upper Division’s newest addition to the history department, elicited screams and cheers from the students as he did The Shmoney dance. While his dancing debut was a hit with his students, he enjoyed getting to know the students and teachers outside of the halls at Academy.
Said Mr. Moore: “I had a great time with the students I have under my tutelage playing cards and basketball … doing the things that they like to do.”
While the retreats are only 24 hours, the memories are lasting. The retreat settings provide exciting, energetic, and engaging atmospheres. Fifth-grader Elise Faith says she loves the House competitions at retreat because the students get to earn House points. Specifically, she said her favorite memory from the “lock-in” was working with her team to build a bridge that spanned the width of the gym. Coach Shawn Brown, also at the lock-in, found the retreat memorable. “I’ve attended a lot of retreats through other programs and Academy has the most well-rounded, best behaved group of kids I’ve ever been around. The students clearly reflect Academy’s positive school culture.”
Down the road, the 7th and 8th graders experienced the same positivity only in a more rustic setting.
Seventh grader Holden Jorski loved the element of the outdoors – the zip line was a favorite activity along with belly-flopping into the pool. And in his downtime he played ping pong with new student Dion Loutas. “We literally played for three and half hours! We had so much fun!” Whether the students and faculty are building bridges, belly-flopping or blobbing, one thing remains the same – Academy’s tightly knit community.