Around Academy – Issue Two


A Holiday Message from Mr. Heller

Mark HellerOur school’s Statement of Core Values declares that, “We are a caring, compassionate community of learners composed of many different beliefs and traditions seeking points of unity in common experiences.”

What a great statement. It is both descriptive and aspirational. It confirms us all in our own traditions and yet allows us to learn and grow by being open to the traditions of others in our community. I find this stance to be both comfortable and beautiful. I find it to be very American, and, of course, very Academy at the Lakes.

Over this first semester I have been both inspired and comforted by our school community. Our school today is stronger and more vibrant than ever. Our culture is contributing positively and mightily to the growth of our children. The community’s support of our fundraising efforts has been better than ever before. Our classes, our teams, our performing groups, and our clubs are providing students with outstanding opportunities to test themselves, to push themselves, to achieve, and to grow. Though we all come from different traditions, we come together each and every day to seek points of unity in our shared Academy experiences.

The Academy Experience is clearly enriched by our religious diversity. Just like our country, our school is blessed to have Christians of every denomination, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and some people who ascribe to no particular faith. I am proud that every Academy at the Lakes student has friends who share their religious background AND friends who come from different religious backgrounds. We are the world. And, in this holiday season, I hope that we can be a great example to the world of how to do more than simply get along or tolerate others who are different. I want our community and our students to always serve as models that show interest, understanding, and respect to those who follow other religious traditions.

As each day brings us deeper into the holiday season, the obligation to count our individual and collective blessings becomes more and more incumbent upon each of us. Please know that I consider my role in this school community as one of my many blessings. The dawn of each day gives me new opportunities to serve our young people, our families, and the world, and for that I am most grateful.

Mark Heller
Head of School

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Teacher Feature: Mrs. Susan Zalac

Click here to read the article on our blog.


Academy Tradition: Extended Trips

It really is about joy in the journey at Academy at the Lakes – even if that journey sometimes takes students thousands of miles away from campus.


The Florida Keys; the Virginia mountains; New York City; Boston; San Francisco; Nashville: these are just some of the places Academy students have visited through the years.

These “Extended Trip” opportunities are an Academy tradition for grades 5 through 12, and give students the chance to learn, face challenges, and have fun outside of a traditional classroom setting.

Eighth graders recently returned from their Extended Trip to Wilderness Adventure at Eagle Landing near New Castle, Va.

For the sixth straight year, 8th graders had the chance to complete a rock wall climb, a high ropes course, a tree climb, and other challenging activities.

“These activities take a serious effort, and students push through and in the process learn that they can do something difficult with persistence,” said Middle Division Director John Pitcairn. “Every student accomplishes something that they never thought they could do, and they have the vocal support of their peers. You see students pushing each other and encouraging each other, and that’s very rewarding.”

“This is also a significant bonding experience for the students. In a focused way, they push the envelope of comfort and confidence at a time when they are making a major transition into the high school.”

Alise Lowry ’18, who is new to Academy at the Lakes this year, said: “It was an amazing experience. We did so many cool activities like trying to climb a tree, which is something I never thought I would do. It also helped me become closer with everyone and form a really tight group of friends.”

While the Virginia trip is tied to what Pitcairn terms Academy’s “hidden curriculum” of life experience, other Middle Division Extended Trips are closely aligned with the academic curriculum. Fifth and 6th graders travel to St. Augustine and Tallahassee, while 7th graders visit Sea Camp in the Florida Keys.

Like Pitcairn, Upper Division Director Bob Sullivan believes the Extended Trips have value in creating a shared student experience.

“There are bonds that students form when they are on these trips,” said Sullivan. “We do the Upper Division Extended Trip at the beginning of the year for that purpose. For those students who interact when they’re on the trip because they’re ‘forced’ to, that spills over onto the campus when they get back. In addition to the overnight retreats we do during the first weeks of school, the Extended Trip is a second chance for students to form relationships.”

This year’s Upper Division trip was to Nashville, Tenn., where highlights included visits to Vanderbilt University, Belmont University, the Country Music Hall of Fame; and the Grand Ole Opry House; a cruise on the General Jackson Riverboat; and line dancing at the Wild Horse Saloon.


While the Upper Division Extended Trips are loaded with fun activities, Sullivan’s focus is on more than just having a good time.

“This is a growth opportunity for all of them,” said Sullivan. “We don’t baby them. They’re away from their parents, they’re in another city, and things are different. It’s an introduction to what life may be like in a few years when they go to college.”

David Singh ’17, who has a special interest in music, decided to go on the trip because of Nashville’s music history.

“I learned quite a few things,” said David, who also had the once-in-a-lifetime chance to play on one of Elvis Presley’s pianos. “I also got to know some of the seniors and really had a chance to talk with them. And the whole experience definitely gave me a look ahead to what college might be like.”

Said Pitcairn: “No matter which grade level they are in, students are having real-life experiences on these trips. They learn how to travel away from home; how to travel and live with peers; and they also get to see different parts of their state or country.”

“It is absolutely joy in the journey and we’re taking the joy to a different venue and achieving it through a different experience. This is one important that way we deliver our mission statement.”

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Net Gains: Soccer Program Grows with Coach’s Guidance

SONY DSCEddie Oyakhilome has won a World Cup title as a member of Nigeria’s U-17 team. He has played professional soccer in England and Italy. He’s coached dozens of elite-level youth soccer players. And he’s helped many athletes secure collegiate playing opportunities and international professional tryouts.

Yet, for all he has accomplished in soccer, there’s a special sense of satisfaction he gets from coaching Academy at the Lakes’ Varsity Boys Soccer team.

“It is a different type of challenge,” said Oyakhilome, who is in his second year coaching the Wildcats. “The focus here in more on academics and many of my players compete in multiple sports. That means, in order to build a program, you have to create an interest and keep players engaged.”

“We’re going to create an environment where if you come out and try, you will not fail. If you try, it doesn’t matter if you make a mistake – there’s nothing negative about trying. And on top of trying, you have to have a smile on your face and stay positive.”

Oyakhilome’s approach is already beginning to make an impact on Academy’s program.

With 17 players, only four of whom are seniors, the Wildcats are fielding their largest roster in the school’s history. The team is well on its way to its best record in years, having already won four games, including an 8-0 “mercy rule” victory earlier this month.

“We have a really good set of young guys, and they’re really starting to dedicate themselves to the team,” said co-captain Tyler Sargent ’14. “You can see their commitment even during the off-season.”


“We see growth from last year to this year already, and that’s great to see. We’re really challenging some of the top teams in the league this year. It’s nice to know that as seniors, we’re part of the growth and we’re helping to build the soccer program.”

While Oyakhilome and the Wildcats are beginning to see their dedication pay off, the best moments aren’t necessarily the goals or wins.

“I like the fact that these are smart kids,” said Oyakhilome. “They comprehend what I’m teaching quicker. I can also teach respect and discipline here. It’s a great school with the type of education and discipline that translates to the field.”

“We have improved so much and I tell my players that when we get on the field, nobody is going to judge them. We’re just going to go out and play. We have respect for each other and we have fun. And when we play well regardless of the outcome, that’s what really makes it worth it.”

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The It Factor

It’s my favorite part of the week,” said Lower Division Director Kathy Carley.

It happens most weeks, for each grade, including PreK3.

It gives students a chance to shine in many ways.

It brings the entire Lower Division community together.

It happens on the beautiful new Wendlek deck that was made possible through the generosity of Academy at the Lakes parents.

What is it, you ask?

Lower Division assembly programs are more than just entertainment; they are a valuable part of the Academy experience. And it is hard not to smile when watching Lower Division students present to their parents and peers what they have been learning in class.

Each grade level has the opportunity to present a topic of their choice multiple times per year. Assemblies begin with a “coming in” song led by Performing Arts teacher Aleida Morse, followed by announcements and then a presentation given by the pre-determined grade level.


Every student in the class has a chance to speak, whether it is to present their project, recite a poem or skit, or even lead the Pledge of Allegiance.

“It fits in perfectly with the 6Cs,” Carley explained. “The children have to collaborate in small groups to work on a science project or to share a poem or to sing a song. And, of course, the communication piece is key.”

Public speaking is an important part of Academy’s curriculum, and with these weekly programs, it prepares students at an early age. They are able to grow and become more comfortable with speaking to an audience. In turn, students in the audience learn to be attentive and polite audience members.

Learning does not stop with the presentation. After the program, students who have birthdays that week are encouraged to come to the front of the group and introduce themselves before everyone sings Happy Birthday. Then, Book Club awards are recognized and celebrated with a silly disco dance with Carley. Paw Awards are presented as well.


“Children need to be affirmed for making positive choices,” Carley said, “What is expected as proper doesn’t need to be rewarded, but when they put forth great effort to make positive choices or go above and beyond, they get a Paw Award.”

The assembly also is the platform at which the Giraffe Club, the Lower Division Student Council, is able to talk about their upcoming projects.

Another recent addition to the assembly is the recognition of awards and accomplishments made outside of school.

“It is important that students feel good about themselves as a whole,” said Carley, “If they have earned accomplishments outside of school, then they bring it in and share the details with their peers. The children love to share their accomplishments, and it helps build confidence. If someone struggles in academics, but they are really, really good at, say, gymnastics, then it gives them an opportunity to shine.”

On the weeks that students do not present, Carley focuses on the monthly virtues, part of the character education program. For the month of December, the virtues are, fittingly, self-control and faith. Since Academy is a non-denominational school, all faiths are covered, while self-control lends itself to the excitement that the holidays bring.

Carley encourages parents to come to the morning assemblies, which are every Wednesday morning at 8:30am, either just on the weeks their children present, or every week to see what other grade levels are working on.

“It is a great way for the parents to see what the kids are doing in the classroom and how it relates back to Academy’s mission and core values.”

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Controlled Chaos: A Peek into Academy’s STEM Lab

It was the day before the first Lego Robotics tournament of the year and Mr. Steve Burnley’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) lab was in a bit of chaos.

There was a minefield of backpacks leading the way to the lab, drinks and snacks on all the tables, and the loud chatter of 7th and 8th Graders filling the room.

But this was organized chaos … and an incredible learning experience for the 18 students who were preparing for a competition the next day.


“My basic principle is, ‘I don’t do the work.’ I could build a robot, but I don’t,” Burnley explained. “I really leave it as a 100 percent student-directed effort. I have left this in the hands of the kids. It is really about the experience of preparing and attending, not about winning.”

Burnley’s technique is valuable and proven. Last year the team went all the way to the State Championship and won the Judge’s Award, a recognition of teams who show unique efforts, performance or dynamics.

F.I.R.S.T. (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Lego League (FLL) teams participate annually in two local tournaments to qualify for the regional tournament for the West Coast of Florida. The winners of the West Coast tournament compete in the State Championship at the University of Central Florida in Orlando.

This year, Academy’s two teams competed in the 2013 Nature’s Fury Competition, a challenge based on the preparation for recovery from a natural disaster. Teams chose their own names: S.W.A.T. (8th Grade) and The Rainbow Strikers (7th Grade).

Students built their robots out of Legos based upon a series challenges. Since there are more challenges than can be completed, the teams chose one that focuses on pushing and pulling.

“We have a plow and a scraper to try recover and save people and their pets and get them to a safe area,” said Burnley.

The competition consists not only of robotics, but also a science fair project.

Seventh-grade team member Roshan Warman ’19 said: “We created an invention called an Inverse Irrigation System and it is basically an underground tub which stores water preventing sinkholes and floods. The excess water is stored later on for emergencies.”


Assisting the students was Hannah Burnley ’17.

“I direct students and show them how to do the things they need to do without doing it for them,” said Hannah, The Rainbow Strikers’ Team Mentor. “I also tell them a lot about my own experiences in last year’s competition.”

Hannah competed on the 2012-13 team that qualified for the State Championship, “It was our first year ever having a team and we went in blind, but we got all the way to the state competition. Now I can tell them, this is what is going to happen, you need to be ready for that. I think they have a big advantage.”

And they did.

Between the hard work, mentoring, and self-learned time management skills, Academy’s two teams had the highest robot scores and, the Rainbow Strikers won a trophy for “Highest Robot Performance.”

The teams will compete in their second competition of the year on Saturday, Dec. 14 at Middleton High School. Watch the Academy at the Lakes website for updates on how the teams perform.

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Paying it Forward: Betsy and Roger Joyce

She considers herself “a professional student.” He believes that knowledge is power. It’s no wonder, then, that education is among their top priorities when it comes to giving.

Betsy and Roger Joyce have a long family history with independent schools. They graduated from Chaffee and Kingswood, respectively, and they sent their own children to independent schools as well. Even their parents attended independent schools.

So when it came time to help find the right school for their grandchildren, the Joyces quickly narrowed in on Academy at the Lakes.

“We were looking for a school to help nurture confidence and character in our grandchildren,” said Betsy. “We were looking for common values and we love the way Academy’s teachers interact with their students. Students are expected to be polite and kind and live out the school’s core values.”


Added Roger: “Raising children has to be done as a team and the school is an integral part of that team. A mother can’t do it herself. We can’t do it ourselves. Teachers see the children more hours during the day than parents do, so I like the involvement of the teachers and (Head of School) Mark Heller.”

The Joyces have two grandchildren attending Academy, Roger ’17 and Chelsea ’19, and a granddaughter who is an Academy graduate, Ashley ’13.

Now retired, the Joyces stay involved in the community with Roger serving on the Florida Hospital-Tampa Foundation board and Betsy serving on the Academy at the Lakes board.

Through Roger’s involvement with the hospital foundation, he learned of different ways people were making substantial gifts to the hospital.

“We have watched our grandchildren grow over time at Academy, and we really believe in the leadership and vision for the school,” said Roger. “We decided we wanted to do something for Academy by donating a life insurance policy.”

The Joyces elected to purchase a $189,000 universal life policy of which Academy is the owner and beneficiary. The Joyces pay the policy premium as part of their Annual Fund contribution each year. And because the premium is paid directly to the school, it is also a tax-deductible contribution for the Joyces.

“It feels great to be able to make such a positive impact,” said Betsy. “I just try to avoid banana peels if I can.”

As recognition for pledging Academy’s first-ever planned gift, the school will name the Music Studio in honor of the Joyce family.

Given Chelsea’s love of band and Betsy’s background in musicology (she has a bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D.), it is a most fitting way to say “thank you” for what will be a transformational gift to Academy at the Lakes.

Having a building named in their honor was a pleasant surprise to the Joyces, who never dreamed they could leave such a legacy at Academy.

Said Betsy: “I thought, I really love this school. I would really love to help this school. I want to pay it forward. It’s doing a whole lot for my grandkids, and I want someone else’s grandkids to have this same opportunity. We want it to serve as an example for other grandparents.”

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