Fresh Air and Freedom

By Kay Kipling January 1, 2010

asset_upload_file393_30757.jpgImagine a spot along the Florida shoreline where young children play and learn outside all day, riding horses, swimming (sans suits) in warm aqua waters safely penned off from sharks, picnicking in the shade and opening their curious minds not only to the 3Rs but to the natural and scientific world around them, nurtured by a small cadre of devoted teachers. Sound like educational heaven? Such was the case when the Out of Door School (now the Out-of-Door Academy) first opened its doors on Siesta Key back in 1924.

The academy, which has turned out generations of students who fondly look back to their days there, is celebrating its 85th anniversary this year with a special event on March 20 (the Banyan Ball) that notes both its founding and the 30th anniversary of its renowned Extravaganza fund-raiser. Volumes could be written about the school’s unique history; in fact, a handsome coffee table book is scheduled to be printed in time for the anniversary celebrations.

Those 85 years have, of course, seen major changes both on Siesta Key and the times in which we live. But much of the philosophy on which ODA was founded remains in place, and that philosophy traces its roots back to an amazing young woman named Fanneal Harrison, forever known to her “little chicks,” as she called them, as “Nena.”

Fanneal Harrison grew up in Atlanta, the daughter of fairly well-to-do colonel and his wife (the site of their estate is now home to the Fernbank Museum of Natural History). At a time when most Southern belles were probably still practicing their husband-hunting skills, Fanneal spent two years studying for a medical degree followed by two years working in children’s clinics in Boston and Atlanta.

Most importantly, when World War I arrived, she spent years with the American Red Cross in Europe organizing health camps for hundreds of orphans and destitute young children, followed by two years with the Commission for Relief in Belgium.

Harrison’s time abroad confirmed her passion for helping children reach their full potential, not just academically but physically and spiritually. She met a kindred spirit in Catherine “Gabby” Gavin, who had also spent the war years working in Europe. Both she and Fanneal were deeply influenced by the ideas of educator Dr. Ovid Decroly. Decroly was a physician, psychologist and educator who promoted schools that would emphasize physical care and social education in a format that allowed for “much freedom…but no disorder, no chaos.”

Upon their return home, Fanneal and Catherine determined to follow Decroly’s principles while opening a little school of their own. Fortunately, Fanneal’s parents had a winter residence overlooking the Gulf of Mexico at Big Pass on Siesta Key, and just east of the family home was property available for sale. With some financial help from her father, Fanneal bought the former Gleason Ranch and commenced plans for a new kind of school based on these precepts: “Rest and fresh air, freedom, and as much time as possible in the open…books and the knowledge of joy gained from books are not all of education.”

Nena and Gabby were joined by three other teachers; female and unmarried, they lived on campus with many of their charges, who included boarding students from as far north as Massachusetts and Vermont along with the children of locally prominent people. Over the years, Out of Door was the school of choice for the children of landmark Sarasota developer Owen Burns; for James Lambert, son of the inventor of Listerine mouthwash; for the son and daughter of Pulitzer-Prize-winning author MacKinlay Kantor, and many, many more.

For those students, the curriculum included arts, crafts, poetry, dancing (the performing arts were much emphasized, with frequent productions in the school’s little theater), those daily “salt” swims and enough carpentry lessons to enable them to actually build several of the school’s smaller buildings. (Innovative Sarasota architect Ralph Twitchell, whose children also attended the school, designed several of the original buildings.) There were lots of excursions, too: to the Ringling Brothers’ circus quarters, to the Tarpon Springs sponge fishing docks, and, perhaps most memorably, several visits to the home and laboratory of Thomas Edison in Fort Myers to help celebrate the inventor’s birthday.

“Everybody I ever knew who went to the Out-of-Door School in those early years adored that school,” says Harriet Burns Stieff, who attended the fledgling academy from 1925-1937 (she started in the preschool program). “They just loved every minute. And if you were good all week, you could go back on Saturdays and play with the boarders.”

Still, the harsh realities of the Great Depression and Florida’s boom-and-bust real estate cycle were bound to intrude. When the school faced its first deficit in 1929 (despite increasing enrollment), eight parents supplied the funds to keep the doors open. It’s an early example of the kind of parental involvement, both financially and otherwise, that has kept ODA flourishing up to the present day.

Catherine Gavin died in 1933; Fanneal Harrison retired in 1938, passing the reins to her nephew, Harrison Raoul. (Fanneal suffered from severe arthritis, somewhat assuaged by regular visits to the waters of Warm Mineral Springs, where she moved; but nevertheless, she lived to the ripe old age of 92, dying in 1973.) Over the years a number of different owners and headmasters and headmistresses administered the school; and eventually, in the 1970s, the owners sold the prime Gulf-front portion of their property to developers and moved all of the school’s functions to the tree-shaded Reid Street portion of the overall campus where it still sits today.

On that tucked-away five-acre campus, you can still trace the steps of the “friendship walk,” with names, handprints and a variety of animal and nature designs in the sidewalk left there by departing sixth-graders over the decades. About 270 students, from pre-K to sixth, attend the Siesta Key school; while another 300-plus make up the population at the school’s 85-acre Lakewood Ranch campus, opened in 1996 to accommodate the desire of older students and their parents to continue the ODA style of education into the middle and high school years.

The results of that education are impressive: Graduates have been accepted to a host of highly thought-of colleges and universities (usually with generous merit-based scholarships), SAT scores average over 1200, and ODA has been recognized as a member of the Cum Laude Society (the secondary school equivalent of Phi Beta Kappa).

But according to Elizabeth Mahler, part of the volunteer team working on that souvenir anniversary book (and wife of current headmaster David Mahler), when former students from every decade were interviewed about their experiences at Out-of-Door, the most frequently heard reminiscence was that the school “was their second home or their second family.” As the second oldest independent, coeducational, nonsectarian school in the state, ODA has a history to be proud of—and a legacy to live up to. 

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