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Out-of-Door Academy building for a better future in Lakewood Ranch

A $4.75 million middle school expansion will offer opportunities for students.

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What started as a list of ideas for what The Out-of-Door Academy’s middle school needs and what to do with an underutilized parking lot has turned into a new facility and quad for the school.

“The project is about reimagining the middle school experience for our students,” said David Mahler, ODA's head of school. “We’ve taken what previously was an underutilized part of campus, and we’re energizing it with the new facility and what will be a totally new campus for our middle school students.”

Mahler said middle schoolers currently don’t have their own outdoor space and a place to gather, so when ODA started the process for the expansion two years ago, school officials wanted to ensure middle schoolers had state-of-the-art facilities and resources.

“I think in many schools (that incorporate both the middle and high schools on the same campus), middle school can be forgotten,” Mahler said. “We wanted to make sure we didn’t forget about an important time in the development of a child, and we felt like our facilities were not aligned with the quality and the vision of our program. We wanted to invest in making our middle school program and facilities best in class.”

The new 13,500-square-foot building on the Uihlein Campus in Lakewood Ranch, is set to open Aug. 25 on the first day of classes for the 2020-21 school year. Mahler said the project is on time and on budget, which is $4.75 million. Funding for the project came from fundraising as well as three $1 million contributions. Construction on the project began Oct. 1.

Once complete, the middle school's capacity will be at 320 students, an increase of 100 students. The current enrollment is 200 students.

Julie Bianchi, the head of the middle school, said after the completion of the expansion, ODA will have a “middle school identity unique to itself and unique in the community.”

The facility will provide opportunities for middle school students similar to what they will see once they enter high school, with access to a virtual reality and media studio, fabrication lab and a science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) lab. 

Ashley Kozel, Out-of-Door Academy's chair of the Board of Trustees, and David Mahler, head of school, look forward to providing a new building and programming for ODA's middle schoolers. Courtesy photo.
Ashley Kozel, Out-of-Door Academy's chair of the Board of Trustees, and David Mahler, head of school, look forward to providing a new building and programming for ODA's middle schoolers. Courtesy photo.

“What we’re trying to do is build programming that goes from sixth grade through 12th grade,” Mahler said. “The facilities are designed to give our kids access to technology and experiences that for a lot of students they wouldn’t have access to until they got to high school or potentially even in college.”

The new building will be equipped with solar panels as ODA expands its commitment to renewable energy sources.

Mahler said the new facility will be a shared space for all middle school students, but noted the classrooms primarily would be for eighth graders.

Walking into the new building, students will enter the academic commons area, which will be a space for students to do work before and after school as well as socialize. Teachers can also bring their classes there to work or collaborate with other classes.

Sixth graders Kamran Jobe and Delilah Ranceful both said the building will be a chance to expand education opportunities at their school. 

Jobe looks forward to the new STEM lab so students can get “really messy” while working on different projects. 

Joanne Barrett, the middle school instructional technology teacher, said currently different classes are using the same room throughout the day, making it difficult to have dedicated space for equipment or projects.

Students can also go to the fabrication lab where they can turn their ideas into physical prototypes.

The virtual reality and media classroom will have “the most advanced technology and the future of artificial intelligence," Mahler said.

He said the students will have access to technology and resources to tackle real-world problems.

“I think [technology is] their world, and what better life preparation can we give them than to have them be comfortable with technology and have them see technology as a tool and not as entertainment,” Bianchi said. “To take a passion, bring in technology and let these kids fly, I think is extremely important.”

Bianchi and Mahler both look forward to opening day when students and staff will see the building for the first time.

“I think there will be some incredulous faces and some wonder and disbelief that this is ours,” Bianchi said.


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