- A Letter from the Head of School
- Teacher Feature – Mrs. Katie Vargas
- Academy Tradition: House System
- Academy Gym Becomes “The House of Blues” for Basketball Opponents
- Upper Division Students Get a Taste of Medicine
- Academy Friends: Keeping Academy Beautiful
- The Impact of Community: Christi and Joel Reinhart
A Letter from the Head of School
The feeling of belonging is incredibly powerful. When we know we matter to the communities we are part of, when we know we belong, we are inspired to do our best. When we are inspired, we develop in countless ways, both predictable and surprising. That development equates directly to the value of a great school experience.
Belonging is generated by the attention we give each other, and this is why I am biased in favor of small schools. In smaller school settings, each child is more significant to the school and the adults in the community. In the small school, students cannot be anonymous. In the small school, the frequent contact with adults can act as a counter-weight to the influences of peers, the media, and the challenging cultural waters in which we swim.
In the small school, every member of the community is that much more important to the daily functioning of the living organism that is a school’s operations. When each class, club, and activity needs our contributions in order to be at its best, everyone benefits and everyone thrives.
In a community such as Academy at the Lakes, one in which each student has the opportunity to be on athletic teams and academic teams, in which each student has numerous opportunities to perform, to present in front of audiences, to be a vital part of a club or activity, to collaborate, to challenge and be challenged, every student develops a deep sense of belonging. That’s the Academy difference.
At Academy at the Lakes, it’s true when we say to our students and parents, You Matter Here.
Head of School
Teacher Feature: Mrs. Katie Vargas
Academy Tradition: House System
Ask any Academy at the Lakes community member, and they will quickly identify these Florida birds of prey as the school’s four “Houses.”
But did you know that Academy’s Houses could just as easily have been named Feta, Gorgonzola, Muenster and Gouda?
Cheesy, yes. But it’s also true.
Of course, the committee members charged with developing and naming Academy’s Houses were only kidding around when they toyed with the idea of cheese names.
“There were many ways of doing it,” said committee member and Middle Division Director John Pitcairn. “We discussed naming the Houses after continents or major world rivers; historic colleges and constellations; ancient heroes and Florida butterflies; and of course, cheese.”
“Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed.”
Naming Academy’s four Houses was just a small piece of the planning that went into launching the program, which arose from the school’s 2003 strategic plan, Charting Our Course.”
One of the initiatives of the strategic plan was to “develop a culture of life-long participation by students, parents, alumni, faculty, and staff in the advancement of the school.”
The House system, which launched during the 2004-05 school year as a result of this strategic initiative, places all students and teachers PreK3 through grade 12 into one of four Houses. To encourage family ties, siblings and cousins are assigned to the same House.
Through the House system, a variety of community-building activities have become traditions at Academy, including a field day called “House Day,” other spirit events, and Buddy Reading. Through these activities, relationships can develop between students of all divisions and ages.
At the end of each school year, the House Cup is awarded to the team that accumulates the most points in the various spirit, academic, and field day events held throughout the year.
Melissa Feingold ’18, has attended Academy for nine years and is a member of the Peregrine House.
“My favorite House activity is Buddy Reading,” said Melissa. “It’s really fun to get to bond with the younger students across the street and it was so fun when I was younger to have the older kids from across the street read to me. I know so many of the little kids because of the House system, unlike in a bigger school community where I may not know anyone.”
“My Peregrine reading buddy from when I was a Lower Division student is now a graduate of Academy. Recently, he came back to visit campus and he still remembered me. He’s almost like a big brother figure to me and that has made it really cool.”
Although Kestrel, Nighthawk, Osprey, and Peregrine are now part of the everyday vernacular at Academy, it wasn’t so long ago that most Academy families had no idea what a House system was.
“We knew going into this that it was brand new and that we had a big challenge ahead of us,” said Pitcairn. “The only experience any of the students had with a House system was having read the Harry Potter series. We knew there could be a buy-in issue. But we also knew it would grab the attention of the younger students.”
“What we were looking forward to was the tradition setting as the years passed, and that has really happened. Now there is not a student in the high school who has known Academy without having a House system. Memories like Buddy Reading and House Day have become an ingrained part of our school’s culture.”
Academy Gym Becomes “The House of Blues” for Basketball Opponents
Matt Grossenbach ’10 remembers the time when there was no Academy at the Lakes gymnasium. There were few wins to brag about. And perhaps there were even fewer fans to cheer on his Varsity Boys’ Basketball team.
Not so anymore.
Today’s Varsity Basketball teams, both boys and girls, regularly play to standing-room only crowds in a building affectionately nicknamed “The House of Blues.”
“It’s completely different than when I was at Academy,” said Grossenbach, the school’s first-ever 1,000-point scorer. “My senior year we had two games where we had really nice crowds. Now it’s like that almost every single game. I cannot even tell you how happy it makes me to come back and see how far the school has come in such a short time.”
Grossenbach points to two major factors that helped turned the fortunes of the basketball programs and the atmosphere at home games.
“When Coach (Tom) Haslam came in (in 2009), it just changed everything. He came in with a completely different attitude and it allowed for everyone to come together and be committed to each other and the team. We knew he was starting something new here and building a base for the future.”
“I think the other thing that’s made a big difference is the success that the girls’ team has had. Their success has just carried over into the rest of the athletic department.”
Haslam, who is also Academy’s Athletic Director, agrees that the 2011 Girls’ Regional Tournament was a defining moment for the entire athletic program.
“When our girls’ team won the district tournament in 2011, and we hosted a regional playoff game, that was our kids’ first taste of a big-time basketball game. In a one-week span, we hosted two home regional games, and the intensity is just different. The other teams bring more fans than they usually do, and the atmosphere is better.”
“The girls’ team’s success started turning our kids’ attitudes around to ‘hey, we’re pretty good’ and ‘why not us?’ That attitude has just carried over into other sports.”
Coach Karim Nohra’s girls’ team just clinched its fourth consecutive district championship, and returned to the 2A State Semifinals for the third consecutive year. The boys’ team is making history of its own – claiming its first-ever district title with a convincing 54-25 win at cross-town rival Cambridge Christian on Feb. 7.
Certainly, there are many factors that have positively impacted the basketball program and the atmosphere at home games: the opening of the gym in 2008; the support from Academy’s student spirit group, “The Blue Crew”; adding bleachers to the gym stage for big games; pumping music through the sound system; and the Class of 2011’s gift of a scorer’s table.
But Haslam knows that, in the end, the bottom line is about winning.
“We win more games than we used to, and if you have a good product out there, then people will want to see it.”
According to Haslam, it’s not just Wildcats’ fans that enjoy watching games in “The House of Blues.”
“Often, I get unsolicited comments from officials and opposing coaches and student-athletes about what a great place this is to play and how it’s their favorite gym to visit. They love it for the same reasons we do – it’s a tight space with great acoustics, we draw good crowds, and the fans are so close to the action that they can hear and see all of the nuances of the game. It’s just an awesome atmosphere, and not surprisingly, our kids seem to play better here than they do elsewhere.”
Really, it’s just as Haslam always thought it could be.
“Coach Haslam always told us that we were building for the future,” said Grossenbach. “He told us that one day, we were going to look back and say, ‘Yes, I started that.’”
Upper Division Students Get a Taste of Medicine
Academy at the Lakes’ is offering an exclusive Introduction to Medicine Seminar for Upper Division students considering a career in medicine. In this unique course, students have the opportunity for hands-on, medical training similar to what they would experience in a college or post-college course. The seminar is being taught by two M.D.’s who are part of our school community, Academy parent Maggie LaPunzia Wells, M.D., and retired physician Dr. Lou MacManus.
This 10-week course explores each system of the body and gives students an overview of the different medical specialties career options. From ear/nose/throat to cardiovascular to the nervous system, students cover a different topic each week and listen to lectures, participate in dissections, use medical equipment, and hear from guest speakers.
Students were selected for the class through an application process that involved essays on topics such as their future goals; why they are interested in course; and why the course might help them. Science Department Chair Colleen McCormick, Head of School Mark Heller, and Dr. MacManus reviewed each applicant’s essays, grades, and previous coursework.
The idea for this seminar was hatched when McCormick told Heller of her plans to organize a trip to USF’s cadaver lab.
“Mr. Heller said, ‘How can we make this bigger? How can we make this a class of its own?,” said McCormick.
Per Heller’s suggestion, Academy approached Dr. Lou MacManus about possibly teaching the program.
“Dr. Lou really took the bull by the horns and just went with it,” McCormick said. “She was really excited about it.”
Dr. MacManus developed the course curriculum and soon, Academy parent and Trustee Dr. Wells was on board as well. Both doctors are teaching the courses based on their particular experiences, an incredible benefit for the students.
Dr. MacManus has two specialties that she brings to the course: General Surgery and Ob/Gyn. Dr. Wells is board certified in Internal Medicine.
In May, the students involved in the program will take a field trip to USF where they will work with USF’s medical students in the cadaver lab. During the experience, the high school students won’t actually cut into the cadavers, but they will be able to trace the systems as the medical students help review each anatomical system.
“I am so proud of our students and the opportunities we are able to provide for them,” said Heller. “Drs. MacManus and Wells are impressed by the quality of our Wildcats, and the students in turn are taking full advantage of the great learning resources at their disposal. I am thrilled with this program – it has the potential to inspire our students in life-altering ways.”
Academy Friends: Keeping Academy Beautiful
At around 8:15 a.m. nearly every morning, Academy has three visitors who walk onto campus as part of their morning stroll. Helen, Joyce and Dawn, retirees who live in nearby apartments, meet in the morning and walk about a mile and a half every day.
Their walk takes them right through Academy’s campus where they enjoy the safety away from the busy streets and the lovely view. “I hear you all singing,” Dawn said with a smile.
It is a symbiotic relationship between Academy and these three women who enjoy the campus in the mornings. Students and faculty alike will often see them picking up trash throughout the campus and depositing it in the dumpsters, keeping the views beautiful for both themselves and the students.
It is not unusual for these three to find a forgotten t-shirt left outside, bring it home, wash it and bring it back to find its owner. These random acts of kindness have to make one wonder… besides the safety and the views, what brings Helen, Joyce and Dawn to Academy? What makes them feel obligated to help clean up the campus?
“We feel a loyalty to the Academy,” Helen explained. After all, it turns out Dawn’s granddaughter attended Academy for several years about six years ago. Jessica Rudock was a cheerleader at Academy and is now 24 years old, living in New York where she is a professional dancer.
Originally, Helen started walking by herself, but when she ran into Joyce and Dawn last April, she asked to join them in their walk — a walk that eventually led them to Academy’s doorstep. And we are so grateful that it has brought them here.
The Impact of Community: Christi and Joel Reinhart
It’s the first word that comes to mind when parent Christi Reinhart reflects on her family’s experience at Academy at the Lakes.
For Christi, husband Joel, and their children, Lauren ’20 and Jack ’24, community means being a part of something bigger than themselves.
Christi, who previously worked as a counselor in public schools, saw first-hand the impact a school culture can have on its students.
“The big thing for me was realizing how many kids fell through the cracks and how many kids were nameless,” said Christi. “No one said ‘hi’ to them or smiled at them. It just seemed these kids could go throughout an entire day without adults really engaging with them.”
“At Academy, there is a feeling of community. My children don’t feel like another nameless face walking the hallways. The teachers and the administration really know my kids. They know them academically but also socially. You could ask any of their teachers what my children like to do outside of school, and they would know that Lauren rides horses and Jack plays basketball. They know we have two dogs, and I bet they know their names too! They just know these things because they care and because they have the opportunity to get to know my kids. That’s really important to us.”
Last school year, Joel and Christi decided to dig deep to give Academy a tangible symbol of community. And in recognition of the family’s generosity, the new deck on the Wendlek Campus will soon be named in the Reinharts’ honor.
“We weren’t even planning to make the gift,” said Christi. “But the deck kind of jumped out as something we wanted to support. For the Lower Division, the deck symbolizes that coming together and community and that tugged at our hearts.”
After many years of seeing their children and other students huddle around the playground for meetings and assemblies, the Reinharts were thrilled when the new, covered deck was unveiled last fall.
“It’s long overdue and it’s what the kids and teachers deserve,” said Christi.
While the Reinharts also support the Leukemia Society and the Hillsborough and Pasco Animal Shelters, they have chosen to make Academy at the Lakes their philanthropic priority.
“Our gifts as parents, grandparents, and alumni make an enormous impact here. You can see it just in the last year with how the facilities have improved. We believe it what Academy at the Lakes is doing and we know that we can play a part in continuing the success of the school so it can serve the community now and in the future.”