Words by Head of School Mark Heller
“Cool clock, Ahmed!” were the words posted by the President of the United States. “Want to bring it to the White House? We should inspire more kids like you to like science. It’s what makes America great.”
Unfortunately, Ahmed Mohamed, the 14-year-old student who built the alarm clock from scratch as part of a project for his science class, will find it difficult to bring the clock when he goes to the White House this week, as the clock is still being held by the Irving, Texas, police department as evidence in the case that resulted in his arrest, handcuffing, and suspension from school.
In a school that functions as a community, this would never have happened as it did – mostly because Ahmed would be known and understood. His teachers and friends would know how he loves to tinker. They would know that he had built a computer, and that he routinely fixes cell phones and other electronics. Further, he would have been guided by his teachers to communicate effectively about his plans to bring the clock to school. He would have known (because the teachers in his school would have worked with him to help him understand) about the potential his invention would have had to make some unknowing people nervous or concerned. He would have been well prepared to play his responsible role in preparing his community to receive the homemade clock.
If Ahmed had been at our school, he would not have been arrested, handcuffed in the main office, booked, and suspended (a suspension that continued past the expressions of support from President Obama, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, and MIT).
If Ahmed had been at our school, he would have been supported in his explorations, and he would have been encouraged and nurtured. If Ahmed had been at our school he would have been taught about the implications of his scientific explorations. He would have been prepared to help the community avoid the conclusion jumping and mistrust.
If Ahmed had been at our school, he would have been treated as a partner, growing to celebrate the love of learning and the joy in the journey.
Ahmed is now switching schools. I wish he lived in our area, for we would love to have a student with his talent and ingenuity at Academy at the Lakes. He would fit right in.
And that’s the Power of Community.
As leaders in sports often are, Academy at the Lakes’ Athletic Director and Varsity Boys Basketball Coach Tom Haslam is humble when speaking about the success of the Wildcats’ athletic program. But it isn’t a coincidence that the program has been steadily growing and shining since the day Coach Haslam became a part of the Academy community.
Tommy Giglio is Academy at the Lakes.
He was one of the school’s first “lifers,” the school’s first alumnus commencement speaker, and the school’s first alumnus to become a major donor. He was highly involved as a student, and continues to be highly involved today as he passes the 10-year anniversary of his high school graduation.
Read the article on our blog.
In a world filled with distraction and noise, it is important to Mrs. Aleida Lemes, Lower Division Performing Arts Instructor, that students have successful communication skills. She focuses on giving students opportunities to share so that that their audiences will want to pay attention.
Mrs. Lemes shows students the value of preparation, confidence, eye contact, and knowing the expectations of an audience.
“When you want people to pay attention to you, what are the tools in your toolbox that you should have so that people want to listen,” she asks? “These are all abstract things that are going to come in handy throughout high school, college, and beyond. We are thinking about these things and getting those experiences to students when they are young.”
It isn’t just Mrs. Lemes who understands the importance of these life skills – Academy’s entire faculty does as well.
Mrs. Lemes says: “Everyone believes it is an important experience. It is important for the children individually and also as a group. People believe that this is good for our community.”
It is because of the value placed on the arts that Mrs. Lemes has been able to put together such high quality Lower Division productions each year since 2007.
“The funniest thing to me is when people are really surprised when they enjoyed the show. A lot of times parents will come up to me and say, ‘I can’t believe they can do those things! I really enjoyed it!’”
The Lower Division production has grown throughout the years, just as the school has continued to expand.
What started out as a small performance for yearly Parents’ Association dinners grew into an All School Musical. Eventually, a stand-alone Lower Division production was added. This production gives younger students the opportunity to take lead roles in a production.
When it comes to picking the production each year, Mrs. Lemes bases her decision on several factors that revolve around the students.
“I try to rotate the experiences. Last year we had a character play and a lot of the work was acting. This year we have 18 different songs with instruments and dances, so our focus is on the music. There are a lot of 4th Graders this year that really enjoy instruments.”
It takes a lot of hard work, preparation and collaborating between all the students and faculty to put together the Lower Division production each year. When asked what her biggest challenge is, Mrs. Lemes says it is just that – time and coordination. However, the end result is well worth the effort.
“The payoff is when you see kids really enjoy it and when you see them have a really good experience. It’s especially meaningful when you see students do something they never really thought that they could do. You see them take risks. Sometimes they surprise you.”
Academy at the Lakes’ successful science department has even more to brag about with the addition of its Environmental Science course led by science teacher Ms. Sheri Mahoney.
The course is a field-based class designed to engage students in an in-depth study of ecology with a focus on the human impact on the environment. Academy’s newly implemented block schedule provides students take time to discover the world around them through field-based explorations.
All Upper Division students who have taken biology are eligible to take Environmental Science. The only other pre-requisite is a willingness to get dirty.
During their block schedule class, once a week, students don their rain boots and trail attire and rush outdoors with their field books in hand to observe the nature that is preserved on Academy’s 47-acre MacManus property.
The field aspect of the course provides hands-on learning and a non-traditional learning environment that suits many students.
Said Ms. Mahoney: “I have a student who is shy and not very vocal in class. In the field, he smiles the whole time and is actually giddy. He walks next to me and we just take in the beauty together and we connect more in these moments than we could in 100 years of inside time. I can see him feeling the environment, and he recognizes that in me. We just work well out there. I can tell he’s much more at home in the field, and it helps me know and understand him better.”
Science Department Chair Mrs. Colleen McCormick shares Ms. Mahoney’s excitement about the course.
“This is true scientific learning in action,” said Mrs. McCormick. “Being out in the field, seeing the environment changing each time the students visit the property and interacting directly with the land and water is so much more powerful than just learning it from a textbook or on a screen.”
Observation is key to the course, and Ms. Mahoney focuses on teaching her students to change the way they observe. Learning how to observe through the structured processes of doing increases their awareness.
“Questions such as when we focus and when not to focus and learning how to tune in are focal points,” said Ms. Mahoney. “While students take in the beauty around them, they specifically note the differences between what a space looks like this week compared to last week. Students note animal tracks, water levels, and water quality. Students also use infrared cameras to observe wildlife activity.”
In addition to improving their observation skills, students enhance their spatial skills — spending time outdoors in a natural habitat encourages them to feel more comfortable and aware of their surroundings.
The lessons learned go far beyond improved observation and spatial skills. The way the students view the land and look after the living things on the land drastically changes. Their passion is evident and they slowly become advocates for Academy’s property and the land that surrounds it.
“In taking this class, I can be an advocate for the planet, and learn how to properly take care of and appreciate the environment,” said Regan McCormick ’17. “Through Ms. Mahoney’s teaching and the opportunity to explore our little piece of Academy property, I have seen organisms in the natural habitat that I would have never been able to appreciate elsewhere.”
“I hope to be able to take my knowledge and understanding from this class and share it with those around me, showing them how we can all do our part to take care of our Earth no matter how small our part may be.”
Jonas Moros ’17 offers another perspective, though equally important.
“Environmental science isn’t just all hokey and saving the world. It’s about having a relationship with nature around you and knowing what’s going on around you and recognizing when things are wrong or right. It’s not just stereotypical ‘hippie’ business; it’s about sustainability and moving forward in a healthy way … making progress in a healthier way.”
Ms. Mahoney’s goal for the course is to create stewards of land, fostering 20 new student advocates who can share their knowledge and their passion to make a difference in our world, aligning with Academy’s mission of dedicating ourselves to the success of each individual at school, in the community, and in the world.
Six years ago when her family first enrolled at Academy at the Lakes, the Wendlek Campus was, as Kara Sartain put it, “a little sore on the eyes.” However, based on the recommendations of several AATL families, Kara and Jim Sartain looked past the physical appearance of the Lower Division and enrolled their oldest daughter, Olivia ’24.
“The teachers and the experience were phenomenal,” said Kara. “Olivia thrived and the teachers and everyone were so nice. We fell in love with the school.”
Later, the Sartains enrolled their younger daughter, Sarah ’26.
“In the six years we’ve been at Academy, the physical changes to the campus have been unbelievable,” said Kara. “Now it’s a true joy to tell someone to go look at the school. The facilities are better and the transformation is incredible. Of course, you’re wrapped up in the teachers, and that really is the best part.”