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Lakewood Ranch school emphasizes joy of learning

Sea of Strengths Academy, which serves third through 12th graders with learning disabilities, instills confidence in its students alongside its highly structured approach to academics.

Vice Principal Robin Hamilton and Principal John Hettler run the Sea of Strengths Academy.
Vice Principal Robin Hamilton and Principal John Hettler run the Sea of Strengths Academy.
Photo by Lesley Dwyer
  • East County
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Daniel Fowl said he always knew he had a different “learning style.”

When frustrated because he couldn’t grasp a concept through reading, he would seek out audio and visual images to sort through it.

His difficulties didn’t hold him back. He started a medical residency at Sarasota Memorial Hospital six months ago, and at age 34, he wants to eventually become an emergency room physician.

After years of classroom education, it took becoming a father to finally unravel the mystery of Fowl’s learning style. He and his oldest son Scott, 9, were diagnosed with dyslexia within a year of each other. Scott was 6, and Fowl was 31. 

The Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity reports that 20% of the population has dyslexia, and it is the most common of all neuro-cognitive disorders. 

“I actually found some comfort in (the diagnosis) like ok, I do belong. It’s just not within the group I was trying to place myself,” Fowl said. “I would look at people who had normal learning styles and think ‘Why do I get confused and frustrated by lengthy paragraphs?’”

Fowl moved his family from San Antonio, not only for his residency, but for the Sea of Strengths Academy, too. His wife, Brooke Fowl, said the couple knew from their first visit that Sea of Strengths was the right fit for Scott.

Daniel and Brooke Fowl attend a purse bingo fundraiser for the Sea of Strengths Academy where their son Scott is enrolled.
Photo by Lesley Dwyer

Not only does Sea of Strengths work on academics using the Orton-Gillingham approach (a highly structured approach that breaks reading and spelling down into smaller skills involving letters and sounds and then builds on those skills over time), but Vice Principal Robin Hamilton said the staff also works diligently to build their students' confidence.

“A lot of the times, the kids come to us beaten down because they've had so many struggles, especially the kids that have come from public school into our middle school,” Hamilton said. “They’ve had years of people telling them they’re stupid or not trying hard enough. Meanwhile, they’re trying as hard as they possibly can.”

Hamilton described these students as the ones who are “falling through the cracks” in public schools because the most intervention they receive is being pulled from the classroom once a week for extra help. 

In addition to dyslexia, the academy enrolls children with ADHD and additional language-based learning disabilities.

By first grade, Scott was overwhelmed and had to repeat the grade. He was already telling his parents, “I’m stupid,” and crying daily before school. 

Scott’s diagnosis is what made Fowl seek his own. Everything Scott was experiencing — his struggle to read and the self doubt that followed — his father had experienced.

“If (Scott) can be spared some of that by learning the coping mechanisms early on, then he can do whatever he wants because he will know how to work with his own unique skill set,” the elder Fowl said.

The school serves children in grades 3-12 and currently has an enrollment of 33. The teacher to student ratio is typically 10-1 and about 5-1 for breakout groups.

“I know every student and every car that pulls up,” Administrative Assistant Tiffany Whitehead said. “And the parents all have my personal cell phone number.”

A smaller school benefits both students and parents, but Principal John Hettler said it can be difficult to get the word out to the public about the school. It’s easier now since the surrounding area has grown. In 2008, when Sea of Strengths opened, there were only six students. 

The school can accommodate 40 students, so there are spots available. On Feb. 9, Sea of Strengths held a purse Bingo fundraiser at Gold Coast Eagle Distributing. 

About 60 people attended in an attempt to win Chanel and Kate Spade bags. Whitehead is already planning for another Bingo party and coming up with new ideas like Casino Night to draw in more guests and funding. 

Proceeds will go toward the extras that a small school can't always finance by itself. Whitehead said the administration wants to incorporate more social elements into its programming, starting with after-school clubs. 

Clubs or not, Brooke Fowl said her son no longer cries before school and comes home smiling. 

“One of the great things about schools like Sea of Strengths is that they really emphasize the joy of learning,” Daniel Fowl said. 



Lesley Dwyer

Lesley Dwyer is a staff writer for East County and a graduate of the University of South Florida. After earning a bachelor’s degree in professional and technical writing, she freelanced for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Lesley has lived in the Sarasota area for over 25 years.

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