New year, new school: Marco Island Academy has first day of classes in new facility

Lance Shearer

Tuesday Aug. 10 marked a new beginning, and a major milestone, for Marco Island Academy, the island’s charter high school. Like all Collier County public schools, and most of those throughout the state, it was the first day of the new school year. But at Marco Island Academy (MIA), it was more.

This day brought the graduation of the school itself, from the pre-fabricated modular classrooms, also known as trailers, that had housed it for years, into a brand-new, shiny, state-of-the-art school building that has been rising alongside where the modules used to sit.

More:Back to school: Marco’s school year begins amid resurgent COVID

Students are now in a facility crammed with new technology, architectural touches, and carefully thought-out spaces ample for the needs of staff, the school’s board of directors, and of course the nearly 300 students who are learning there. And from a taxpayer’s point of view, the best part is the entire cost, both the approximately $15.1 million spent so far and the approximately $3 million to complete the campus, is funded by private donations without any public funding.

MIA board chair Jane Watt, who conceived of a Marco Island high school, and spearheaded the project against a tide of opposition including a former Collier County school superintendent telling her “there will never be a high school on Marco,” has now seen two of her three children graduate from MIA, including son Johnathan who was co-valedictorian last spring. Jim and Jane Watt’s younger son Jacob was among the incoming freshman class on Tuesday, so their offspring bracket the old and the new at MIA.

Leading a visitor on a tour on Tuesday, but eager not to disturb education in progress, Jane Watt marveled at the surroundings. From the gleaming gymnasium/auditorium with its hardwood floor, where the home team Manta Rays are currently undefeated, to the chemistry, physics and engineering lab with 3-D printers and computer-controlled CNC mill for robotic cutting of materials, students at the new MIA will enjoy facilities and amenities of which their forbears in the modules could only dream.

More:‘Smiles ahead’: Positive attitude helps waitress cope with cancer diagnosis

Watt deferred on explaining the technical details to Mark Melvin, a major benefactor of the school who serves as steering chairman of the capital campaign committee, a member of the MIA Leadership Advisory Board and National Advisory Board, and president of the MIA Rays Squadron, a new 501(c)3 set up to finish the fundraising. A longtime construction and technology professional, Melvin’s nearly $4 million in personal contributions – “he stopped counting,” laughed Jane – is augmented by the lead role he took in implementing the cutting edge technology visible and invisible throughout the school.

Innovations include smartboards in every classroom and 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.” That has added resonance when you consider the eye of major hurricane Irma passed directly over the school, and remarkably, the modular classroom suffered only minor damage.

“It’s amazing when I think where we used to be operating from,” said Watt.

Like a flower rejuvenated by water after parching in the sun, Principal Melissa Scott said she feels reinvigorated by the return of students to the school, whether the old or new version.

“I can’t believe how much energy and love the kids bring back. It’s just a completely different world when the kids are here. They are my life’s blood.”

In addition to Melvin, major donors who enabled the MIA school building to be completed in a fraction of the time originally envisaged include the Iordanou family, the McCreanor family, Bill and Karen Young, and Rene and Tish Champagne. The Youngs loaned the school $2 million to purchase the land, then tore up the mortgage and converted the loan into a gift.

Rene Champagne said he was captivated by the passion of Jane Watt for the project.

“She was so passionate about what she wanted to achieve. I couldn’t wait to get involved. You want to get on the team.

“Both my wife and I were involved in running colleges, and we were very well versed in  the importance of K-12, particularly the high school years which are so formative. It’s vital to set standards for students on this island and beyond, and make sure they get the problem solving, teamwork, and communications skills they will need.”

So far, Marco Island Academy, which last year required face shields in lieu of COVID masks, has not developed their policy on dealing with the resurgent pandemic this school year.

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.