Quarterly Newsletter – Issue Ten

State of the School

Words by Head of School Mark Heller
Mark HellerDear Academy at the Lakes Community:

Happy New Year! May 2016 bring all members of our community great health, happiness, and prosperity. May it bring our children inspiration, insight, and growth.

2015 was a very strong year for Academy at the Lakes in many ways: we sent a diverse class of 30 seniors off to a great range of colleges as skilled, confident alumni; we achieved record enrollment; we made significant improvements to our facilities; we once again had excellent participation and success in both athletics and fine arts; and we continued to provide a first-rate educational experience focused on equipping our children to find success in the 21st century academic arena, workplace, and life through the development of the core strengths embodied in our “6 C’s”: Critical Thinking, Collaboration, Communication, Creativity, Citizenship, and Character.

Enrollment and Financial Health

As a result of today’s enrollment (waiting lists for multiple Middle and Upper Division grades), prudent expense management, and excellent leadership from our Board of Trustees on the financial front, I am pleased to report that Academy at the Lakes is in a very healthy financial position. We are a not-for-profit corporation that does not depend on tax dollars to provide a first-rate experience for our children and families. Thus, our main source of income is revenue from tuition. Of course, our greatest expense (by far) is in compensating our excellent personnel. In order for us to provide that first-rate experience for our students, we must attract and retain the very best people. Please click here to view an overview of Academy’s 2014-15 finances. Strong enrollment growth over the last few years has enabled us to continue to improve the experience we provide while keeping annual tuition increases at or below our market’s average. Once again, our annual tuition increase for 2016-17 will be below the regional average. Please click here to view the 2016-17 tuition and fees schedule.

Academic Programming

Classroom learning at Academy brings countless “Aha!” moments as well as steady daily steps toward growth. With the caring teachers on our faculty as their guides, Academy students learn how to read and write, how to analyze and calculate, how to collaborate and communicate. Their days include many signature Academy experiences like the public speaking contest, Science Fair, Robotics competitions, the Invention Convention, House Day, the Medical Seminar, Battle of the Books, Science Olympiad, the Amazon Experience and Annual Internship, Buddy Reading, Senior Speeches, research with Moffitt’s Medical Oncology Lab, and countless other features that make Academy who we are. Academics at AATL go way beyond the traditional “3 R’s.”

College Counseling and Placement

2015 was again an excellent year for Academy’s seniors. The class of 2015 continued the trend of seeking value at least as much as prestigious “names.” In total, 2015’s 30 seniors received scholarship offers of $2.1 million. Members of the class matriculated at a broad range of schools, from the excellent local options of USF, Eckerd College, St. Petersburg College, and the Ringling College of Art & Design, to the Midwest (Indiana University, Lindenwood University) the South (Georgia Tech, Emory, Florida, Florida State, Stetson, Florida Gulf Coast, the University of Houston) and the Northeast (Cornell). Our goal is to help each senior find the best match for their next steps, and that means the best match in the academic, financial, geographic, and social realms. Our college counseling program continues to provide our families with great information, counseling, and assistance in this process.

Athletic Highlights

Success in athletics is measured in multiple ways – through lessons learned about individual perseverance and pushing one’s limits, through lessons about collaboration toward team success, and through the power of participation and learning to embrace challenge. By all measures, including wins and losses, 2015 was a very good year for Wildcat sports.

On the team front, Winter 2015 brought us Regional Championships and Final Four appearances for both our Boys’ and Girls’ Varsity basketball teams. This was our girls’ fourth consecutive Final Four and their fifth straight District Championship. Academy swept the post-season honors winning Pasco County Player of the Year and Coach of the Year on both the boys’ and girls’ sides.

In the Spring, our Boys’ Tennis team won the District Championship over Berkeley, Tampa Prep, and Carrollwood Day School in a thrilling tournament. At States a few days later, our District Champion Girls’ Doubles team came home with the State Championship. Softball won its fourth consecutive District Championship with a roster peppered with strong Middle Division girls. Fall 2015 featured a great run by our young Varsity Volleyball team that finished its season in the Regional Tournament with a record of 24-6. They hold much promise.

Our school finished the 2014-15 school year third in Class 2A in the FHSAA (Florida High School Athletic Association) All-Sports rankings. Only one other school in the entire Tampa Bay area (Newsome High School in Class 8A) finished as high in their class’ state-wide All-Sports ranking. In August, we were notified that our 2014-15 performance gave us the #1 All-Sports ranking among all 2A private schools in Florida.

Fine Arts

Our exceptionally strong performing arts program requires the participation of our student-athletes and all of our students to achieve its successes. That Academy students have both types of excellent programming at their fingertips is a true hallmark of our school. All of our students and families who attend our musical theater, instrumental, and choral productions can attest to the great learning and great performances that come through this side of Academy’s program. 2015’s All-School Production of The Music Man, which involved almost 300 students and teachers was a delight. The 2015 Winter Concert just last month was deeply impressive in how it showed such a range of what our teachers and students can accomplish. (Who will soon forget Dr. Compton conducting the combined band and orchestra in a stirring rendition of the theme from Star Wars with a light sabre?) Our upcoming production of Peter Pan will feature a cast of hundreds of students and a (small number of) flying children! It will, as all of our concerts and performances do, create great memories for our students and families.

Through the performing arts, Academy students learn problem-solving, collaboration, and communication skills, and they develop confidence in how they can utilize those skills across the many platforms their lives will bring.


In 2015, our Academy community demonstrated unprecedented generosity and made a tremendously positive difference for our students and teachers. 2015’s major focus in the Development department was the “Play It Forward” Campaign to completely renovate the Lower Division playground and courtyard. To date, the campaign has raised over $280,000 toward its $300,000 goal. The playground portion of the work was completed over the summer, and the students returned to enjoy the Sartain Family Playground, a space that provides outstanding opportunities for learning through play. We are close to completing the campaign, which will give the Wendlek Campus a beautiful courtyard to accompany the beautiful playground.

Academy students were also the grateful beneficiaries of a most generous gift from the Downing family in 2015. As part of their desire to support our athletic program, the Downings financed a complete renovation of the sport court in front of the gym. The new D & D Sport Court is handsome, functional, and a great improvement that benefits hundreds of Academy students each day.

Another accomplishment of the Development department in 2015 involved the W. Paul Hagenau Scholarship Endowment Fund, a fund that has grown largely through alumni contributions over the past few years. Named for our legendary denizen of the Upper Division faculty, the fund provided its first-ever distribution toward the tuition of an Upper Division student in Fall 2015.

A Look into the Future

These are exciting times for Academy at the Lakes. As our area continues to grow, so also does our reputation and our position as a premier school in our market. The resulting increased market demand is producing both record enrollment and waiting lists in multiple grades.

Our Board of Trustees is in the process of creating a new strategic plan to guide us over the next three to five years. That plan will include the significant step of master planning our campuses, including our extensive acreage behind the Lower Division and Our Lady of the Rosary.


I am most proud to report that the state of our school is strong, vibrant, and flourishing. Academy at the Lakes is exceptionally well-positioned to provide families in the Tampa Bay Area an outstanding educational experience today and for the many tomorrows to come. One of our guiding principles and greatest assets is our deep belief that at Academy, “You Matter Here.” Together, our families and our faculty will inspire all members of our school community to meet the dictates of our Core Values: that we develop heads to know the good, hearts to love the good, and hands to do the good. We celebrate the love of learning and the joy in the journey.

Thank you for being our partner.

Thank you for choosing Academy at the Lakes.

Mark Heller
Head of School

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Teacher Feature: Mrs. Melissa Ovitt ’04

Teacher Feature Mrs Melissa Ovitt

“Life is too short not to be happy.”

This is Mrs. Melissa Ovitt’s favorite quote and it isn’t too hard to see why. After all, optimism and joy are essential for what she does: wrangle a classroom full of PreK3 students alongside Ms. Becky White, her equally sunny teaching assistant.

Spend just a few minutes in the PreK3 classroom and you will quickly realize how much patience, happiness, contentment, and love Ms. Melissa has for both her students and for what she does every day.

Read the full article here.

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Invention Convention: Inspiring Young Dreamers and Doers

Mrs. Elizabeth Magnusson, 5th and 6th Grade Science Instructor, is passionate about bringing the inner innovators — the dreamers and doers — out in her students. In a world where creativity and innovation are rapidly becoming more sought-after than formal education, that is a gift that will only grow in value as the students progress through their educational journey and, eventually, into their careers.

Read more here.

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Choral Program: More Than Music

Boys Chorus

Academy at the Lakes’ 7th through 12th grade choral program is distinctive. It’s creative and it’s fun and it’s entertaining, but the key components that drive its success are collaboration, communication, and citizenship.

Led by two passionate and talented directors, Mrs. Katie Vargas and Mr. Mark Heller, Academy boasts three singing groups – Girls’ Chorus, a collegiate-style a capella male singing group, and a full co-ed chorus when the two groups come together.


Music Promotes Teamwork and Builds Confidence

Boys Chorus

“The subject of chorus is not really music as much as it’s confidence,” shares Mr. Heller. At Academy, all students are welcome to join chorus; no audition is required. “Performing as part of a group can unlock a certain confidence that students will carry with them into other parts of their lives.”

Contrary to what most might think, choral work is not as much about creativity as it is about teamwork. Performing is physical, mental, and auditory. It requires a good deal of concentration, energy, and awareness of your teammates.

“Everyone has a different role,” said Mr. Heller. “Each young man plays a significant part in our successful communication with an audience. Each person must know when to breathe together in succession, depending on the musical line, when to listen for the other parts, when to move or act or deliver a joke or gesture. ”

Students in Academy’s choral groups stretch beyond rote memorization to understanding the musical language. Fundamentals of musical language and performance language equal communication. Chamber music, especially, requires interacting with your team. Regarding the boys’ a capella group, says Heller, “It’s cheeky. It’s humorous and charming; cool and creative. The boys have to move a little bit and be funny a little bit. The humor is about tweaking expectations to create an engaging and charming performance.”

Knowing how to entertain an audience is a skill that requires practice and, again, a particular type of understanding and awareness that Academy students learn because of their involvement in the choral program and the confidence they build through this participation.

Even the group’s name is humorous. Ranging from 16 ½ Men to 24 ½ Men, the boys’ name fluctuates with each performance depending on the number of performers present.

The women’s chorus is more traditional in its technique, but understanding musical language and its power are still present.

Girls Chorus

Shared Mrs. Vargas, “The Girls’ Chorus is distinct because of how much time we spend on learning how to be good singers through proper vocal pedagogy—not just good choral singers. Students in chorus sing classical music, musical theatre, and pop, and I hope to teach them that singers, with good vocal production, can apply the tenets of vocal pedagogy to any genre.”

“In the future, I would love to create an elite chamber chorus of select UD Girls to tackle difficult a cappella music as well as classical selections. A dream that I have for the Girls’ Chorus would be to perform an entire masterwork with chorus, including the boys, and orchestra.”

The Girls’ Chorus has collaborated even more this year with the orchestra, and it is a standing tradition to sing the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah with orchestra. Says Mrs. Vargas, “It would be a wonderful experience to sing all the movements to an entire masterpiece, such as Gabriel Faure’s Requiem.”


Academy Alumni Continue their Musical Paths

Students enjoy their choral work at Academy to such an extent that they want to continue in college – an opportunity that otherwise might not have been possible if not for Academy’s open door policy. Students appreciate their meaningful and memorable opportunities and want to continue to study music and perform at the collegiate level.

The following are AATL alumni who have continued their musical journeys:

Kelsey Pitcairn ’07: [ I ]sang in a female a capella group called “Something Extra” for 3 years at Yale and also sang and traveled internationally my senior year with the Senior Women’s Group, “Whim ‘n Rhythm.”

Shannon O’Donnell ’11: I sang in both the Catawba Singers and Catawba Chamber Singers choral groups. We toured to several churches and schools around the NC area. The year before I attended Catawba, the singers were invited to tour around Europe to sing in various cathedrals. I was very proud to be a Catawba Singer during college.

Jason Pitcairn ’11: [I] sang and toured domestically for four years with the male a capella group called Drop the Octave at Gettysburg College.

Alex Gittens ’13: I’m in Vassar College Choir and Ujima. [I participate in] a Groove Society, a vocal and instrumental group for people of color that focuses on soul, jazz, and rhythm and blues.

Alex Burnham ’14: [At Florida State University,] I joined a group called Coda last year. We competed in the International Championship of Collegiate a capella during the spring where we placed 5th, but ahead of the UF groups so we pretty much counted it as a win!

Marie-Christine De Romagna ’14: I’m in an a capella group and we sing contemporary mash-ups of songs!

Akash Gupta’14: I’m in Basmati Beats at Rice University, a competitive a cappella group that fuses Indian and American music.

Dillan Villavisanis ’14: I’m in ‪The JHU Vocal Chords at Johns Hopkins, and we put out an EP last year. I’m also in my college’s a cappella group at Oxford, where I am studying this year.

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Portrait of a Graduate

Portrait of a graduate
Cat Martin ’07 embodies the Academy at the Lakes experience. Starting out at Academy as a shy, reserved middle school student from another country, she took advantage of the opportunities that Academy had to offer and blossomed into an enthusiastic and highly successful student, graduate, and businesswoman.

Read more here.

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