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ARK’s foundation brings innovation to Pinellas Schools

Mark Parker



Stephen Masiclat, head of educational technology for the Innovation Foundation, discusses the new curriculum with a PCS science teacher. Managing Directors Carrie Amos (back left) and Caitlin Wood work in the background. Photos provided.

Children and technology represent the future, and through a newly formed partnership with Pinellas County Schools, the Innovation Foundation is investing in both.

Founded by Cathie Wood of ARK Invest fame, and with a curriculum powered by ARK’s research, the St. Petersburg-based Innovation Foundation’s (IF) mission is to provide education through the lens of technologically-enabled innovation in everyone’s lives, starting with school children.

In collaboration with Pinellas County Schools (PCS), the nonprofit is launching a new initiative in area middle schools this fall to bring STEM education (science, technology, engineering and math) to 6th graders. Caitlin Wood, managing director for IF and Cathie’s daughter, said the overarching goal during the pilot program’s first year is to help kids fall in love with science, increase their confidence when studying unfamiliar subjects and realize STEM is for everyone.

“So, innovation education but also innovating education,” said Wood. “Moving away from that standardized, almost factory model of education and toward individualized learning.”

Carrie Amos, managing director for IF, elaborated that when the organization refers to STEM, it focuses on technologically-enabled disruptive innovation. Amos echoed one of Cathie’s oft-repeated quotes by stating that “innovation is the great leveler.”

“It levels the playing field,” she added.

Amos explained that even before IF became a nonprofit, ARK was piloting some of the same curricula and realized the education benefited and brought together socioeconomically disadvantaged students, English language learners, high-achievers and everyone in between.

In addition to leveling the playing field across demographics, Amos noted that “this is the way the world is going.”

Society’s intersection with technology continues to increase exponentially, and the pandemic only exacerbated the rapid changes. One only has to look at the precipitous rise of electric vehicles, Zoom meetings and the ability to order the week’s groceries through a phone and have them delivered to your doorstep in a couple of hours to see this unfold.

“We are being disrupted by some of these technologies, whether we like it or not,” said Amos. “We want everyone – starting with school students – to get on the right side of change.

“Because changes are happening.”

Ramani DeAlwis, IF’s head of education for middle schools, discusses the STEM-based innovative curriculum with an educator.

The pilot program will begin with six middle schools, and Amos said IF specifically requested that they represent Pinellas County’s varying demographics. These include Bay Point Middle and the James B. Sanderlin IB magnate school in St. Petersburg, and Seminole, Pinellas Park, Palm Harbor and Carwise middle schools.

In addition to STEM basics, IF will eventually integrate programming around subjects like artificial intelligence, robotics, genomics, efficient energy storage and blockchain technology.

When Cathie Wood decided to relocate her successful investment firm from New York to St. Pete, explained Amos, she made it a point to meet with various community leaders. During one meeting, the founder met former Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran and PCS Superintendent Dr. Michael Grego.

They began discussing education possibilities, including IF launching its own school. According to Amos, Grego told the nonprofit’s leadership that bringing their programming to public schools was the best course if they wanted to significantly impact a diverse group of students.

“We all brainstormed about that and realized that’s actually very true,” said Amos.

Through a series of meetings, Amos shared the IF vision and provided an educational overview to county and school leadership. She said PCS opened its doors to the organization and felt a true sense of partnership from the start.

“They said, ‘we really want to partner with you,’ and then we began the process from there about a year ago.”

Caitlin Wood said a focus of the program is empowerment. IF not only wants students to know where society is heading, but it also wants them to realize they can become leaders in a changing world.

Amos explained that as a pilot program, the first year is more about innovative thinking and less about disruptive innovation. She wants IF to foster a new mindset that identifies problems and utilizes innovation to create solutions.

“Making a mistake or failing isn’t bad if we can learn and grow from that,” she said.

Equally important, said Amos, is empowering and equipping teachers and educators with an innovative mindset.

“Teachers … have been through it these last two years with the pandemic,” said Amos. “We want to celebrate and honor them, but also help them be empowered to do what they went to school for doing.

“And why they got into schools in the first place is to help kids think and discover, and so, the teacher training component of what we’re doing is equally important.”

Wood called the initiative’s reception overwhelmingly positive and credited Grego and incoming Superintendent Kevin Hendricks for their openness on the need for the district to pivot and expand its view of what they should include in the PCS curriculum.

Wood noted some initial hesitance among teachers due to other organizations coming in with good intentions but failing to implement significant change. She said personal conversations alleviated the doubt, with IF expressing its desire to work in conjunction with educators based on their needs.

“It’s not, ‘we know exactly what you all need to do,'” said Wood. “No. It’s, ‘you know exactly what you all need to do.’

“How can we help you do that?”

Many teachers, Wood added, were reinvigorated by the prospects of the new initiative. She said that several relayed that the change in structure was how they originally envisioned themselves as an educator.

Amos said three teachers were planning to retire and had a change of heart because they wanted to be a part of implementing the new curriculum.

“That just speaks volumes – not to IF, not to us – but to the partnership to help students soar and thrive in a changing environment,” said Amos.

On June 22, IF will host several interested community members and prospective donors or friends – “I like to say that we raise friends, not funds,” said Amos – to watch the Tampa Bay Rays take on the New York Yankees.

With kids finishing high school, Amos still splits time between the New York area and St. Pete, although she promised to root for the Rays.

“We’re also equally excited to have a second box, and we have invited every single teacher and administrator in the district that is part of our pilot,” announced Amos.

“One of the principals in one of the schools we’re partnering with is going to be interviewed live on the Jumbotron during the game.”

Innovation Foundation staff and PCS teachers discuss plans for the pilot program that launches in six area middle schools in August. Seated at the head of the table is DeAlwis, and in the right corner is Mary Zeman, the foundation’s head of early childhood education.

Wood called IF’s mission a virtuous cycle that consists of a symbiotic relationship between education, mentorship, partnership and funding. She said each component could stand alone, but they are much more effective when working together and feeding off one another.

The vision, said Wood, is to reach kids at an early age and continue expanding the innovative education through high school and college. Many of those students could become teachers and return to the grade schools where they first discovered a passion for STEM.

Wood said conversations with the University of South Florida’s College of Education to continue strengthening that virtuous cycle are well underway. Amos said she would go as far as calling USF a partner. She credited Dr. David Rosengrant, professor of STEM on the St. Pete campus, and Dr. R. Anthony Rolle, Dean of the College of Education, for their openness to collaborate.

Amos said she extended invites to the two educators and their significant others for tye June 22 game “because this is a partnership, we know it’s not all about us.”

“It takes a village, and USF coming together with Pinellas County is the beginning of a village,” said Amos. “There are so many people in St. Pete and organizations that care so much about education.

“We’re a piece of that larger puzzle, and as we come together, we’re realizing how this disruptive innovation curriculum is going to help students – to make our community in St. Pete a better place.”



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    John Donovan

    June 18, 2022at6:08 pm

    I believe they (IF) have this exactly right. I have a companion idea of sorts I’ve been pondering for years. Equally necessary, extremely practical, and very low cost to deliver. Probably best for 8th or 9th graders. I’ll write a note to Mr. Hendricks.

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