Journals of Yesteryear

Out of Door School

Author: Ann A. Shank, former County Historian
Source: Sarasota County History Center

When the Out of Door School opened in 1924, its name reflected its program. The 20-acre campus on Siesta Key, fronting on Big Pass, was the classroom. Class and study time, rest hour and pageants were held in the sun and fresh air, along with more typical outdoor activities such as swimming, sailing, horseback riding and other sports and games. Early classrooms (for rainy days) and dormitories for boarding students were small wooden cabins with screens and shutters.

Founders Fanneal Harrison and Catherine Gavin were followers of Dr. Ovide DeCroly, pioneer of progressive education in Europe. For DeCroly, the primary function of schools was to promote children's healthy bodies, minds and spirits in an environment of freedom and self-discipline. Harrison's medical training and her experiences caring for children in Europe during and after World War I convinced her of the merits of the DeCroly method. Vacationing with family on Siesta Key after her return from Europe, Harrison found the perfect place to begin her next career.

Later recollections of some early students and people who made their ODS experience memorable. Gavin was remembered as artistic, a lover of flowers. An early biology teacher was known to stop the school bus to pick up dead animals from the road. The carcasses would later appear on the dissecting table. Students learning French developed a conversational competence around a "French table" in the dining hall. On a visit to Thomas Edison's laboratory in Fort Myers, the students took a cake to celebrate Edison's birthday with him. The children cared for a variety of animals on campus, including chickens, goats, ducks, peacocks, parrots, snakes and a monkey.

Students helped create and maintain their environment. Carpentry classes for girls and boys produced easels, chairs, tables and a stage for the frequent pageants. When the library was built in 1934, students assisted the carpenters to the extent that in later years the library has been described as student built. An April 1934 article in the Sarasota Daily Tribune concluded that the building of the library "has contributed more than any other project to the teaching of what Miss Harrison considers the all-important lesson that cooperating to create is more worthwhile than competing to take." Designed, by architect Ralph Twitchell, the library was named in memory of co-founder Gavin, who died in 1933. This photo of the library was one of a number of photographs' in a promotional package, showing the out-of-door nature of the school.

While the Out of Door School offered a curriculum and physical environment different from those of other schools, it experienced some of the problems of any school. In letters to her family, one of the early teachers bemoaned that the students did not know how to study, necessitating a class in that discipline. She also described a conflict between staff and parents. In this case, some mothers threatened to withdraw their young children rather than permit them to swim nude. (Harrison believed "skin swimming" promoted good health because it allowed the whole body to be exposed to the sun's rays.) Conflict within the faculty erupted over perceived favoritism; cliques and decisions regarding non-renewal of contract. During the 1930s, the shortage of funds led to occasional rumors that the school would close.

The school has survived its financial crises, outlived various changes in ownership and continues today as the Out-of-Door Academy on much-reduced acreage and with most activities held inside the numerous buildings added over the years.

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