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Words by Head of School Mark Heller
“I found you!” the obviously excited mother of five gushed, barely able to contain herself.
“I didn’t know I was lost,” smiled Richard Wendlek in reply. He didn’t recognize the mother who was so happy to see him, but, then again, he had been a principal in Pasco County for over a decade before this afternoon in 1994, and he had had thousands of families in his schools over the years.
“You were the principal of Seven Springs Elementary when Justin was in Kindergarten, and we just loved you and your vision,” said Mary McCormick. “I’ve been looking for you ever since you left.”
So began an incredibly important chapter in the history of Academy at the Lakes – the partnership between Academy at the Lakes and the McCormick family. Over the years, as the two youngest McCormick children, Justin ’05 and Cindy ’06, learned and grew under the tutelage of Mrs. Grifo, Mr. Sullivan, Ms. Ivie, Mrs. Lachicotte (now Mrs. Heller), Ms. Twila, Sr. Legon, Mr. Hagenau, and, of course, Mr. Wendlek, the relationship between the family and the school developed and strengthened, resulting in the most meaningful gift in school history.
The house and land at 2331 Collier Parkway, across the street from the young private school, had fallen into disrepair over the years. Completed in 1960, the mansion had featured a swimming pool, some secret passage-ways and a nice view of Lake Myrtle from the orange grove that fronted the two-lane path known as Collier Parkway. The house had been neglected for a number of years, and had even become a hangout for local kids and drifters. By the mid-90’s it came available at auction.
One morning in 1995, Mrs. McCormick came to Mr. Wendlek and told him that “Gerry and I would like you to have the property across the street.” Again, at first, Mr. Wendlek really didn’t know what Mrs. McCormick was talking about. “I’d like us to have it too,” he replied. “No, you don’t understand, Rich. Gerry and I would like to buy that property and donate it to the school so you can secure the future of the middle school.” Mr. Wendlek was shocked and delighted.
At the time, the school was owned by Mr. and Mrs. Wendlek; it was not yet a non-profit corporation. So the Wendleks and the McCormicks set out to create a foundation to hold the new property. All went well, and soon enough 2331 Collier Parkway became part of Academy at the Lakes. An architect was hired, and demolition began in order to help prepare the building for renovation. English teacher and general contractor (now Upper Division Director) Robert Sullivan led a large group in lending a helping hand. “The early days at Academy were exciting times. Everyone was caught up in the enthusiasm. Students, parents and teachers all pitched in to help with the renovation. The results have been truly amazing!”
The new McCormick Hall opened in 1997, and has become the iconic image of Academy at the Lakes. Each building on the very attractive McCormick Campus echoes the architectural language of the original home, and it all comes together to create a unique, unified, and very effective campus not only for today’s middle schoolers, but also for our high school program.
Today, Academy at the Lakes is a thriving, caring school community that is well-known throughout the Tampa Bay area and the state for providing a first-rate college preparatory experience from PreK3 – Grade 12. We are very proud that our students and graduates “celebrate the love of learning and the joy in the journey” as they move through all of the ages and stages of their lives. They all share the benefits of the Academy Experience, and they also share a debt of gratitude to Gerry and Mary McCormick for having the vision, the generosity, and the hearts to make a difference for so many families for so many years.
The power of giving echoes across time. This school year’s projects will have the same long-lasting, life-changing effects as the visionary gift from the McCormicks. Because of the generosity and the hearts of today’s families, we have renovated the art room, added the Upper Division Patio and the new sport court just this year, and we are very close to completing the drive for the Lower Division Playground and Courtyard project. All of these projects improve the Academy Experience today, and they prepare the ground well for the many tomorrows and the many children yet to come.
With his credentials and experience, there are many things Dr. Gary Compton could be doing every day, but Academy at the Lakes is where he chooses to spend his time.
It’s simple: Because of our community – something that has drawn families and faculty alike to Academy.
Recently, one of my students said to me, “It’s like a bubble, our own little world in this classroom; I don’t even recognize some of my classmates because everyone’s inner geek surfaces in our discussions.”
The bubble exists in room 32 seventh period – Advanced Placement Language and Composition.
Academy at the Lakes’ Upper Division offers Advanced Placement courses that run the gamut from language courses such as Chinese Language and Culture to technology courses such as Computer Science A.
Depending on one’s interest and aptitude, there’s likely an AP course that captures any Wildcat’s passion.
It’s been a banner year for Academy at the Lakes’ athletic program. Literally.
Each season – fall, winter and spring – yielded championship results for the Wildcats. In total, the Academy gym will soon display six new banners – five for individual accomplishments and one for a team championship, the Boys’ District Tennis title. In addition, three of the existing team banners will be updated with new championships.
Academy, which competes in the 2A division of the Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA), offers 12 sports. Eight of those sports had an individual and/or team qualify for regional or state competition. Although the results are not yet final, Academy at the Lakes currently ranks third among more than 100 2A schools for the FHSAA Floyd E. Lay Sunshine Cup All-Sports Award, which rewards schools’ overall athletic successes during the 2014-15 school year.
Monique Montoute ’14 knew, as she sat in the audience at the Wesley Chapel Performing Arts Center watching Academy at the Lakes’ annual musical, that she wanted to be part of Academy’s family. Academy’s performance of The Sound of Music was music to her ears and a defining moment in Monique’s decision to pursue her education at Academy at the Lakes.