Taking shape: Marco Island Academy’s new permanent campus nearing completion

Lance Shearer

Marco Island Academy has achieved remarkable success in the 10 years since it began in a rented space, before moving to prefabbed modular classrooms. Now, the school is racing to complete its state-of-the-art permanent home, thanks to the vision of its leaders, particularly founder and board chair Jane Watt, and the generosity of well-heeled and public-spirited donors.

The three-story academic center, Manta Ray Hall and the arts and athletic facility are fully up, dried in, and having interior finishes and equipment put into place, next to the existing campus on San Marco Road. The push is on, said Watt, to have the gymnasium ready to hold the school’s graduation ceremony at the end of this academic year in May.

“We’re on schedule to do the graduation in the new building on May 28,” said Watt, as she showed a visitor the progress that has been made since groundbreaking for the new facility in May of 2019. This will be a marked contrast from last year’s graduation, held in the parking lot at Veterans’ Community Park, with students’ families remaining in their cars, and graduating seniors stepping out to walk masked-up and receive their diplomas.

Initially, the new school was to be built in three phases as contributions to the building came in, but an outpouring of community support allowed construction to proceed without a halt. The only constraint is that phase 3, which will comprise playing fields and athletic facilities, is going to go where the modular classrooms sit now, so construction cannot begin until after the “trailers” are removed. This will happen shortly after the completion of the school year, said Watt, and students will begin the 2021-2022 academic year in the new buildings.

Along with Watt, Mark Melvin, a member of the MIA Leadership Advisory Board and National Advisory Board, and an engineer and longtime construction professional who has been instrumental in bringing the new campus and its high-tech features to fruition, expounded on some of the features the new school will feature. It will incorporate many new technological innovations, from smartboards in every classroom to swiped keycard access panels at each door that will provide a moment-by-moment verification of where each student and staff member is in real time. Throughout the school, 87 video cameras will monitor every area – “except the restrooms,” said Melvin, “and we will have facial ID and proximity sensors to know who is in there.”

All glass in the building is hurricane-rated, and the structures exceed the Miami-Dade hurricane requirements, said Melvin. “Every other cell is poured solid, with rebar, making it tremendously strong.”

With fundraising well in hand and construction proceeding smoothly, Watt bubbled with enthusiasm as she led the tour, almost seeming to float an inch or two above the concrete flooring. She compared the school to a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis, taking on a beautiful new form, while pausing for a moment to appreciate the prefab buildings that got them this far, including weathering a direct hit from Hurricane Irma with minimal damage.

She pointed out rooms for various departments, talked about color schemes, with interior walls being painted as she spoke, and pointed out swatches for the exterior walls with their three-dimensional depictions of manta rays, the school’s mascot.

“It’s going to be the most beautiful campus you’ve ever seen,” she said, “not a box or institutional. We’ll have all new furniture – most of the teachers have been working on donated desks – and every teacher gets their own room.” There will even be, for the first time, an office for the board chair, her.

The adjacent boardroom has a glass panel looking down on the gymnasium below and its stage, where the graduation will take place in May. In all, the academic building will total over 25,000 square feet on three floors.

Watt’s own children mirror the past, present and future of the school. Daughter Olivia went through the school in the modular era, Johnny will make the transition to the new building next year, and her son Jacob will move up from Marco Island Charter Middle School in August, starting high school in the new facility.

MIA is a charter public high school, meaning there is no tuition for students. Watt touted the advantages of attending a smaller school. “There are lots of opportunities for leadership,” she said. With approximately 215 students, MIA is an A rated school, ranked in the top two percent of the nation’s most challenging high schools, designated a High-Performing Charter School by the Florida Dept. of Education, and ranked as one of the nation’s most academically challenging schools by the Washington Post.

The school reached its $14.1 million capital campaign goal in November, although there are still – always – additional needs and opportunities for giving, as well as naming opportunities. Marco Island Academy is a 501(c)3 charitable organization.

Speaking of naming opportunities, Watt pointed out that Melvin, who has given over $3.2 million to the school, transferred all his naming rights to others, including naming the signature lobby after Jane and her husband, and permanently designating the principal’s office after the incumbent, Melissa Scott.

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