By Diana Colson
The Out-of-Door School was established in 1924. Renamed The Out-of-Door Academy in 1977, it celebrates its 90th year of continuous operation. In spite of the advent of technology and dramatic changes in curriculum, the Academy has remained true to the original mission of the two amazing women who were its founders.
Fanneal Harrison and Catherine Gavin were both nurses during World War I. When the war was over, they traveled Europe studying the best educational practices of the era. Both came away from that experience believing that a school’s focus should be to educate the “whole child”—intellectually, socially, and physically. Both women were visionaries, convinced that fresh air, physical activity, and immersion in the arts would develop graduates that would be skilled, confident, and successful. Today, academics, arts, athletics and character education continue to be the focal points of the ODA mission.
Out-of-Door-Academy is an independent, co-educational college preparatory school located on two separate campuses in Sarasota. Current total enrollment is 685, with 255 students in grades 9-12. The school is unique in that every member of the ODA community is held accountable to follow the school’s Core Values, including faculty, parents and students. As guidelines, a list of these Core Values is posted in each classroom: Excellence, Integrity, Respect, Responsibility, and Service. Academic integrity is of primary importance, and ODA requires all students to abide by the Honor Code.
The Lower School is located on Siesta Key on the site of the original Out-of-Door. This campus is small and charming, and sits on five acres of land. It is home to 245 younger students, pre-kindergarten through 5th. A log cabin stands in the center of the complex. Designed by the architect, Ralph Twitchell, it was built as a library in the 1930’s by students and members of the faculty.
In those early days, morning lessons integrated academics with a schedule of outdoor activities. Indeed, the philosophy of the school dictated that most classes be held out-of-doors. The dining hall was an open air spot on the Gulf of Mexico, looking out over swim docks, which included diving boards and shark netting. Students swam every day before dinner at one o’clock, and then rested for one hour on mats in the sun while teachers read to them. The rest of the afternoon was devoted to the arts and to the care of gardens and pets.
In the words of founder Fanneal Harrison,” Rest and fresh air, freedom, and as much time as possible in the open are more important, if one has to choose between them, than strenuous programs of study for school children.” Intellectual curiosity was fostered. Children took nature walks and field trips. It was truly progressive education.
Today, Pre-K – 5 students enjoy the ambiance of towering banyan trees and historic buildings alongside modern classrooms. A first-rate technology infrastructure is in place which includes labs and mobile laptop carts. The Lower School also has a 17,000+ volume library, music room, art studios, science labs, and a studio for the student-run campus TV station, WODA. Activities reflect an ambitious age-appropriate curriculum, while maintaining a focus on nurturing and mentoring each individual child. Emphasis is on the early establishment of self-confidence, a sense of responsibility, and an enjoyment of learning. At the end of the school day, students are encouraged to participate in a variety of organized activities, with importance placed on service and enrichment.
Since 1996, the Middle and Upper School has been housed on the Uihlein Campus at Lakewood Ranch. The site is large: 85 acres. Here, 440 students in grades 6-12 experience a core college preparatory curriculum with electives in the performing arts, fine arts, sciences and humanities. It offers a variety of athletic, extracurricular and community service activities.
The success of the ODA program is demonstrated in the fact that 100% of the graduating Class of 2014 has matriculated to a four year college or university. Furthermore, 98% of those 54 students received more than $8,390,000 in unsolicited academic scholarships, an impressive average of $156,000 per scholarship recipient over a period of four years.
The high-caliber education provided by ODA comes at a cost. However, 20% of ODA students receive financial assistance, allowing an inclusive community which welcomes students from all socioeconomic backgrounds. This year, 1.75 million dollars were given in financial aid so that children who otherwise could not attend ODA were able to experience an independent school education. No Merit Scholarships are provided: instead assistance is simply given to families in need.
ODA was originally a boarding school, and students were drawn from all over the United States. Today, however, students are recruited both nationally and internationally, and the school serves youth from over 30 countries. In this age of globalization, ODA gives students and faculty opportunities to explore beyond the boundaries of textbooks, classrooms and borders. The Academy partners with a premier school in China with the goal of developing a more global perspective. International exchange programs are in place, with technology being used to increase international understanding. ODA encourages intellectual diversity in the classroom as well as demographic and ethnic diversity in the community.
In the words of David V. Mahler, Head of School, “The world is changing very quickly. ODA is trying to be thoughtful and visionary in creating a classroom of the future, not a classroom of the past. The integration of technology is important, as is the mastery of language. Every 6th grade student studies Latin. Mandarin has been added to the language offerings, along with Spanish, French and Arabic. Out-of-Door Academy has remained true to the vision of the original founders, but it also continues to evolve and change, making sure that the next generation is exceptionally well prepared for college and for life.”