LAKEWOOD RANCH -- On the first day of school for 2015-16, Out-of-Door Academy unveiled a $4.5 million student and STEM center, funded by the Dick Vitale family, the Dart family and the Dart Foundation.
The two-story, 10,000-square-foot facility features student lounge areas on the first floor and state-of-the-art math and science labs on the second floor.
"Thank you will be the theme for this morning," headmaster David Mahler said as the high school students gathered in the Petrik Thunderdome before heading to the campus' southernmost point to see the center.
The project has been in the works for a few years. The student center and science, technology, engineering and math center were originally envisioned as two separate buildings for the private school that serves children from kindergarten to grade 12 on two campuses. But putting the centers together seemed to really fit the vision of the school.
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"But from vision, you have to execute," Mahler said.
The campus has transformed in the last 13 years, said 17-year-old Aiden Dowdy, who has attended ODA since he was in kindergarten. Dowdy started his senior year on Wednesday. After seeing all the construction associated with the student center/STEM center last year, he was excited to see the finished product.
"It honestly took my breath away," said Dowdy, a Sarasota resident.
The project was funded mainly through grants from the Vitale Family Foundation -- five of Vitale's grandchildren attend the school -- and the Dart Family and Dart Foundation, which has provided grants related to STEM in Sarasota County for the past eight years.
The Dart Foundation is a private family foundation created in 1984 in Michigan. The foundation is still headquartered there but donations are also made in Sarasota, where the Dart Container Cooperation is located. The container cooperation creates single-use food cups and containers.
Ariane Dart said her father-in-law was focused on science, technology, engineering and math long before the term STEM became ubiquitous in education. The Dart Foundation grant to ODA was the largest grant by far for the organization.
"We were extremely impressed by the plans for the STEM center," she said.
The decision for the Dart Foundation to give to ODA was also strengthened by the Vitale family's support for the project. On Wednesday, Vitale lauded the new, shiny center.
"It has exceeded any dream that I ever had," the Lakewood Ranch resident said.
Although he told the students he didn't want to lecture them, Vitale couldn't walk away without imparting some wisdom. He told the students to follow their dreams, stay away from drugs and alcohol, to work hard, make their goals reality and to share their love.
"Life is very simple," Vitale said. "Make good decisions and good things will happen."
Meghin Delaney, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081. Follow her on Twitter @MeghinDelaney.