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Tiny private school aims to boost struggling Pinellas teens

The program will focus on giving students career skills in a real-life environment.
SailFuture Academy is expanding its enrollment to serve more high school students who have struggled in a traditional setting. It will be located in the old Norwood School on 27th Avenue N in St. Petersburg.
SailFuture Academy is expanding its enrollment to serve more high school students who have struggled in a traditional setting. It will be located in the old Norwood School on 27th Avenue N in St. Petersburg. [ Courtesy of SailFuture Academy ]
Published Jun. 16

Cameron Auclair remembers his first two years attending a Pinellas County district high school mostly for his time not there.

“I passed the first half” of ninth grade, the 16-year-old recalled. “It went down from there. ... I didn’t end up going to school. I just didn’t like it.”

After two years of that, he found his way to SailFuture, a tiny private school that focused on delivering its lessons through real-world boating experiences. Cameron thrived, and he’s now a rising senior.

SailFuture Academy student Cameron Auclair says the tiny private school has changed his outlook on life.
SailFuture Academy student Cameron Auclair says the tiny private school has changed his outlook on life. [ Courtesy of SailFuture Academy ]

“This changed me,” he said, explaining that he was motivated to attend regularly and make good grades. “I took a chance. It paid off.”

Now SailFuture’s founders hope to make a difference in more teens’ lives, particularly those who live in underserved communities and have yet to find their education path. They’re expanding the program into a year-round private high school, based in the old Norwood School on 27th Avenue N in St. Petersburg.

It will start with a ninth-grade class and grow from there, with a target of 54 students, most of whom will attend using the state’s expanded school voucher or tax credit scholarship system. It aims to grow to 200 students within four years.

“We’ve been a school for three years, primarily for youth that live in our residential programs,” founder Mike Long said. “We felt as though that particular group of students needed a very different approach to their education. ... We realized it’s not just for kids in foster care. If we can create an experience for the community at large, it could do a lot of good.”

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Rather than focus on traditional classroom instruction, the school plans to give students hands-on projects in areas such as electronics, boating and construction.

“We take a subject that your average ninth- or 10th-grade student wouldn’t care about, and say you need to understand this theory,” Long explained.

Why? Because they will put the textbook knowledge to use with things like a solar-powered robot, or a 150-foot yacht.

The ultimate goal is to empower the students to find financial independence through their learning of practical skills and problem-solving opportunities, said head of school Lindsay Danielson Rapuano.

She stressed that SailFuture is not a technical or vocational school. Rather, she said, it’s a different approach to learning the materials in meaningful ways that lead the teens to see they can succeed independently in life.

The model includes a year-round calendar, in which students attend for six-week terms — sometimes completely away from campus on learning endeavors — followed by two-week breaks. Teachers will get guaranteed vacation time and joint planning sessions so they can collaborate.

It also will be a gradeless school, with students and parents instead getting detailed feedback about the areas where they’ve done well and where they’ve struggled in meeting state academic standards, as well as industry and career certification requirements.

“A-B-C-D does not do that,” Long said.

The school will have a system to calculate grade point averages for college admissions, he added, but the students’ primary measure of success will come from those interactions with their teachers. Students also will be grouped into “crews” of eight for their lessons and projects.

Cameron said SailFuture’s hands-on model made classes seem more important and worthwhile to him. The gradeless report cards also made it easier for him to understand how he’s performing.

“I feel like the A’s and B’s are not a good way to look at it,” he said. With the reviews, “I know what I need to work on and how I need to improve.”

Overall, Cameron said he found himself a better person by attending SailFuture, learning life skills such as patience and hard work alongside the academic lessons that tie into future experiences. He’s considering two paths after graduation — engineering or boat captain.

His recommendation to potential students: “Give it a chance. Life is taking risks, and this one will pay off.”