‘A second home’ – Marco Island Academy completes its state-of-the-art facility

Lance Shearer

How much electricity does it take to power a shiny new high-tech high school? One Watt.

Jane Watt, the chair of the Marco Island Academy board, is the founder and visionary who with the sheer power of her determination brought MIA from a widely scoffed at dream to a collection of modular trailers that nevertheless produced academic excellence among its students, and now to a gleaming, permanent state-of-the-art facility – and all without taxpayer dollars.

Key to the successful completion of the school was getting “buy-in” from some high-net-worth donors and convincing them to put their dollars behind the Marco Island Academy concept. Unlike Jane and husband Jim Watt, these “angels” do not have children, or grandchildren, who will ever attend the school as students. But after about a dozen years and $15 million, on an island with virtually no large parcels of available land, MIA is putting the finishing touches on its physical plant.

“We’re so close. They’re painting on the practice track,” said Watt.

“The locker rooms and concession stands are being finished up,” said major donor and Rays Squadron president Mark Melvin. The school played its first home soccer game on their own field recently. The athletic fields were the last piece of the puzzle to be completed, as work there could not begin until the old modular classroom buildings were removed after the students moved into the new building at the beginning of the last school year.

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The fields are nice and new, but it is the academic building that makes the facility stand out. From the gleaming gymnasium/auditorium with its hardwood floor, and the equivalent of a skybox for the school’s boardroom, to the chemistry, physics and engineering lab with 3D printers and computer-controlled CNC mill for robotic cutting of materials, students at the new MIA enjoy facilities and amenities of which their forbears in the modules could only dream.

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 501(c)3 set up to continue fundraising efforts to cover annual operating costs of between $800,000 and $900,000. 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 provide a moment-by-moment verification of where each student and staff member is in real time. Throughout the school, 87 video cameras monitor every area except the restrooms, where facial ID and proximity sensors still keep tabs on occupancy.

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.” After the eye of major hurricane Irma passed directly over the school, September’s Hurricane Ian provided a test of the new facility – where Principal Melissa Scott took last-minute shelter as the storm turned toward the island.

“This school is built to withstand hurricanes,” said Jane Watt. “That’s a big reason we wanted a permanent school. We did really with Ian.” Scott reported seeing water coming down San Marco Blvd. from the direction of Goodland, but she and her beloved Jeep remained safe.

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.”

Additional support came from the JW Marriott – but for years, what Watt and MIA backers encountered from the community, and the educational establishment, was skepticism and obstruction. Watt, who 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,” and did his best to make the prediction come true, has now seen two of her three children graduate from MIA, including son Johnathan who was co-valedictorian a year ago.

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“I made a lot of mistakes, but with each mistake I learned something,” she said. “Not being politically savvy, I thought everybody would be in support. I thought the (school) district would work with us.

“I trusted some people personally, and I learned that hiring is not my strong point. I wouldn’t trade the journey, but I wouldn’t relive it.” Now she is very confident of the team in place at the school, and the team is in turn bullish on the present and future of MIA.

“I feel like MIA provides excellent education for students, at a public-school price – that is, free,” said Melvin. “With the small class sizes and individual attention, it’s like going to a private school, without the cost.” One enhancement he emphasized was having a mental health counselor onsite. “It helps the kids work through issues. Being able to sit down with a counselor is an added benefit of being at MIA.”

Scott said that for all their academic success, nurturing plays an equal role in developing their students. “It’s not just learning – this is a second home to them,” she said. “I want them to look at themselves holistically.”

MIA has been ranked in the top two percent of the nation’s most challenging high schools, designated a High-Performing Charter School by the Florida Department of Education, and ranked as one of the nation’s most academically challenging schools by the Washington Post.

Scott confessed to a little nostalgia for the “pioneer” days in the modular classrooms. “I think if you don’t remember where you came from, you can lose your spirit,” she said. Going back to the earliest days of MIA, through its remarkable odyssey, there is no doubt the school has come a long way.