Our first experience with Montverde Academy was driving through the campus in the spring of 1993, while our Clermont home was under construction. The grounds were serene and charming. On the east side of the campus, I recall seeing only the boy’s dorms, along with a small storage building. There may have been more there, but I only remember the beauty of the land and its peaceful pastures. On the west side of the campus, I remember three or four Spanish mission-style buildings, along with a small chapel. Just past the buildings, you could see Lake Florence and a few homes. The campus was lined with live oaks and other indigenous trees, along with well-kept faunas of every kind. We loved the beauty of the school grounds, and agreed
the campus was scenic, pre-Disney Florida at its finest.
At the time, we were in our mid-twenties with a two year old child. Our daughter, Elyse, was born with VATERS syndrome, a congenital condition with many skeletal, respiratory, and digestive defects. When our young, small family saw Montverde for the first time, Elyse had just “graduated” from Boston Children’s Hospital, after undergoing seven major surgeries and eleven additional procedures requiring general anesthesia for various anomalies associated with her condition. It was a frightening start to her life, but we all fought hard to save her, and won. We were in no condition to even consider a private school for our child, due to mounting health bills, along with the costs of building our first home. Plus, the Academy’s grade levels were 7th through 12th grade at that time. Consequently, we concluded, “beautiful school… maybe one day”.
Five years passed, and we had another daughter, Christina. Tina was very healthy, and experienced her pre-kindergarten years at First United Methodist Church, where Meristell Shackelford was the Director. Mrs. Shackelford was the most understanding, devoted dean I had ever had the privilege of partnering with. Elyse attended Clermont Elementary, but joined her sister at FUMC after school. Our girls adored “Miss Meristell”, who was often quoted in our home as if she were Yoda!
When Elyse entered 6th grade in 2001. We received a reality slap with regards to Florida public schools. She was woefully ill-prepared for the landscape of middle school! We were astonished at the amount of bullying, partying, stealing, and cheating that her classmates demonstrated. So young! Most of the teachers and administrators in Lake county were very good. But many of them were busy handling problem students, and didn’t seem to have the time to focus on the “good kids”. We were seeing first-hand, the challenges local public schools have in educating and molding an ever-growing number of students, under the guidelines designed by our government.
Don and I had co-founded our broadband consulting and brokerage firm during the 90s, but the dot-com crash had just hit us. To add salt to our financial wound, we had just added a baby boy to the family. Once again, the idea of affording private school seemed impossible. However, we had fought too hard to protect our precious girl when she was born. There was no way we were going to see that treasured life be tarnished by an inferior junior high and high school experience. Moreover, Christina had just been transferred to a new elementary school. Her 3rd grade classroom was comprised of almost 60 students, instructed by one resident teacher and one certified teacher.
Our kids were our first priority. We weighed what we wanted now for us, against what we wanted later for our children. So we decided to do whatever it took for our three children to not have to endure a substandard education. We explored the opportunity of a Montverde Academy education. In 2002, we filled out our very first MVA application, and Elyse was accepted.
In 2004, the Lower School was completed. Immediately, we sought acceptance for Tina to attend. We were so blessed to be able to have both of our girls attending the same school, enjoying their studies, loving their friends, and serving in their communities. They were blossoming in the best environment available anywhere for both academic and character development. The icing on our cake was the Deans of the lower school. Mr. Delmolino was - and continues to be - one of the most beloved and exceptional educators ever to grace any school anywhere. Imagine our surprise to discover “Miss Meristell” of FUMC was at Montverde Academy! In working with Mrs. Kesselring, Mrs. Shackelford and Mr. Delmolino, we have witnessed their belief that childhood is a window of time to learn and advance at the pace which is right for each individual student. We knew that our children’s academic foundation was secure.
In 2005, we added our only son, Jacob, to the list of MVA students. We had already seen fantastic progress with Elyse, and watched the lights go on for Tina as well. The following year, we enrolled our fourth (and final!) child, AnnaMarie, in the Pre-K program as well. Anna spent her first year at Montverde declaring that her teachers were stretching her brain.
In 2009, Elyse graduated, under the guidance of Roger Ross, her cherished Dean. Today, she is a competent, confident young woman, who is thankful for her years at Montverde Academy. Grateful for all of her high school successes, from the Dean’s Award in middle school in 2005, to the appointment as President of the Judicial Council in 2008. She is grateful for her lifelong friends. She is always grateful for her teachers. She is very proud of the fact that she attended classes that Dr. Kesselring taught himself!
Over the course of 28 academic years at Montverde Academy, we have always respected the level of excellence in leadership… from the dedicated teachers, to the caring administrators, to the supporting faculty. Many of them personally know virtually everything about our four kids. They each took a roll in activating our children’s distinctive desire to learn. Since 2002, we have had various conferences regarding each child for a wide variety of topics; from Pre-K orientations, to middle school Math homework, to upper school test scores, to senior speeches. In these meetings, We always felt a genuine partnership with our children’s Advisors and Deans. We’ve never felt the need to speak with the Headmaster on any matter, other than to praise Dr. Kesselring for his excellent assembly of Educators.
Over the past ten years, we’ve seen Jacob excel academically, and develop his own relationships with his dean, along with his teachers, coaches and advisors. He constantly reviews his goals and tells us how much he loves Montverde, and understands the privilege he’s been given. Over the past nine years, we’ve witnessed Anna blossom from the “baby of the family” to a precocious and determined 5th grade student who is looking forward to her future in the Thespian society at Montverde Academy.
As for Mom and Dad, our childhoods were spent in the public school system, moving around quite a bit. We both experienced the difficulties associated with different schools with different teachers and students year over year. We also had periods of time where we would have long stretches in the same place, and understood the value of having deeper roots. Today, we are just overjoyed that we are giving our children the best education, rooted in the best community there is. We have formed many lifelong friendships with remarkable parents of the Academy. The Eagle community is filled with all kinds of families, and we embrace one another’s uniqueness and traditions. We may be different fish, but we swim together in the same school, and we all smile in the same language! The leaders of the Academy promote student self-awareness, alongside heartfelt acceptance of others.
Martin Luther King said, “Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.” At Montverde, we found a school that is a community of like-minded people with a motto and creed we all share; which is the avid pursuit of Knowledge, Character, and Community. We thank the leadership of the Academy in the steadfast commitment to embrace all of our children and instruct them in this way.
It’s been almost 18 years that Ms. Shackelford has been an educator for the Johnson family. I think we hold some kind of record with that! She’s such a gem in our lives. Her team of teachers in the lower school that we have been blessed to work alongside are too many to name! They have all demonstrated that they can teach the way the student learns, not just have the student learn the way they teach.
Mr. Delmolino and his team of Advisors at the Middle school educate their students’ heart, along with their students’ mind. They do everything they can to make sure their students become everything they can!
What is happening inside the walls of all of these buildings is astonishing! State-of-the-art facilities, with first-in-class educators. Remarkably, despite the growth of the campus - and of the student population - the academic, fine arts and athletic programs continually exceed expectations, year after year. We are impressed that all of the educators of MVA are afforded ongoing instructional development curriculums to take advantage of leading-edge technologies
to enhance our children’s preparation for their futures.
After 13 years at Montverde Academy, we now have two college students, one middle-school son, and one lower-school daughter. As parents, you have a month with your newborn, a year with your infant, two years with your toddler and five or so years with your child. You have three pre-teen years, and about five teen years. Then, they’re off. Cherish and nurture those years. Each day, we make deposits into the memory banks of these little people. After 25 years as parents, we have learned that education isn’t always a race to the top. It’s comprehension, character development, and serving your community all the way to the finish line. We haven’t molded them to have more than we have. We are fostering them to be more than we are. We hope that our greatest contribution is not what we do, but who we raise. They are each their own spirit, with their own signature.
The Academy has consistently enhanced these values, and has delivered an unmatched academic program, in a diverse environment, with an exceptional faculty who are dedicated to their students and collaborate to help their students shine. Our regard for the Academy – from the Headmaster and Board of Trustees to the grounds keepers – is whole-hearted and long-standing.