As part of a tradition dating back to 1933, graduating sixth-graders at the Out-of-Door Academy’s lower school on Siesta Key create decorative stepping stones to leave behind. Next year they move on to the Uihlein Middle School campus in Lakewood Ranch. This year, however, the tradition will have even greater significance. Both the fifth- and sixth-grade classes will be graduating this year, as the Uihlein Campus expands to include sixth-grade students, which means there will be two sets of stepping stones.
These decorative stones, which are displayed throughout the Lower School campus, are one of the school’s oldest traditions. They serve as a visual history of the school’s alumni. The tradition started after a visit by ODA students to the Thomas Edison Estate, in Fort Myers. Students were inspired by Edison’s walkway, which was composed of stones engraved by his friends and guests. They decided to incorporate the tradition into their own campus.
Art teacher Linda Wallin, who has been with the school for 15 years, says the students look forward to the big project each year, and that many come back long after graduation to search out their stones.
“My son is 36, and the first thing he does when he comes here is find his stone,” Wallin said. “It’s fun to see people who come back to look at them. I tell the kids to try to think about what they want to be remembered for in 50 years.”
Fifth- and sixth-grade science teacher Pam Davis has been teaching at ODA for almost 35 years and has seen the stone design evolve over the years. The oldest ones are basic concrete, engraved with names and decorations, but in recent years, students have started creating their own colorful tiles to place in the concrete form.
“It’s a special and unique part of our campus,” Davis said. “It’s been great having the two groups working on it. They’re excited, and I think the tiles this year turned out beautiful.”
Fifth- and sixth-grade sisters Celia and Vivienne Miller have had the unique opportunity to work on this project at the same time as they both prepare to head off to the new school.
“I’m excited for the new school and the new campus,” Vivienne said. “But I’ll probably miss all the teachers here.”
Time for change
David Mahler, head of ODA, says the decision to move the sixth graders to the Uihlein Campus, which came about two years ago, will be an added value to the middle school program.
“The sixth-grade students will be able to experience additional elements of the program in academics, athletics and the arts,” Mahler said. “I think this strategic move will enhance education overall.”
Mahler says more than $10 million has been invested in new facilities at the Uihlein Campus in the past two years, and now the students will be able to take advantage of the new labs, classrooms and faculty.
The first step in preparing for the transition was to create a new leadership position. Bruce Lotta was named head of the middle school, where he’s had a year to plan for the change.
Lotta says his goal is for people to be able to look back at middle school as some of the fondest memories in their lives.
“Fortunately, we’re in a position of strength,” he says. “We have a great team that cares about the kids. Now, we just have to think of what exactly it is that middle school should be.”