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Innovative local school vies for $1 million

Mark Parker



Christine Laurenzi (third from left) and Indi-ED students at City Hall for a research project that included an interview with the mayor. Photos provided.

Indi-ED, a St. Petersburg private school that fosters character development, experiential learning and collaboration, has won $200,000 in a prestigious national competition.

Christine Laurenzi, founder and director, is now competing for $1 million in what Forbes called “the Pulitzer of education innovation.” Officials with the Yass Center for Education recently selected Indi-ED as one of 33 semifinalists from over 2,000 Yass Prize applicants.

The Yass Center’s overarching goal is to support, expand and accelerate educational change. Laurenzi has worked to provide an alternative to traditional academic models since 2016, and she said the national recognition validates her work.

“We know what we’re doing is working,” Laurenzi said. “We see it in our kids, we see it in assessment scores, we hear it from our families and it’s research-based – in terms of how we teach.”

Indi-ED currently serves students in kindergarten through eighth grade. Enrollment begins with family and faculty discovery sessions to ascertain needs and answer questions.

One-on-one meetings, small group tours or “shadow days” follow. Teachers then review submitted work samples and align students with an appropriate cohort.

The faculty welcomes feedback and adjusts teaching styles accordingly. Those who excel in certain subjects are paired with similar learners to prevent boredom and complacency.

Laurenzi said teachers integrate content to keep students from enduring hour-long subject-specific classes. “They can learn writing skills through science, or they can learn reading skills through math. And it’s all based on things they’re interested in,” she added.

Indi-ED also provides daily “inquiry” sessions. Laurenzi called that a problem-solving cycle.

She explained that students brainstorm an idea or issue to research. They then contact local subject matter experts for guidance, learn from mistakes and showcase what they learned.

Laurenzi said idea generation, research and communication are core aspects of the Indi-ED model. “And then everything we do is connected to the real world,” Laurenzi added. “They’re out of the building two or three times a week.”

Indi-ED students visit a downtown St. Petersburg construction site as part of their experiential education.

She noted that some parents want their children to read and know math facts by 1st grade. Others prefer play-based learning and emphasize fun.

Laurenzi said Indi-ED groups like-minded students according to learning styles. “This is how you’re supposed to teach children,” she said.

“But I think it’s been a nice nudge to hear from a national organization that they want to support what we’re doing.”

Laurenzi educated Pinellas County students for a decade before she launched Indi-ED’s summer pilot program in 2016. She gave a TED Talk and presented the idea to local professionals to gauge community interest.

The first full semester began with 12 kids in the fall of 2016. The school is now at its 44-student capacity.

Laurenzi recently launched a fundraising campaign to build a new facility. Yass competition winnings – Indi-ED will receive $500,000 if it is named a finalist in November – will help achieve that goal.

She said the school receives over 150 enrollment inquiries annually. However, the local commercial real estate market presents a challenge, and Laurenzi prefers Indi-ED remain a fiscally “sound” organization.

Laurenzi joined pitch competitions and prepared to launch a fundraising campaign in the school’s third year – until the pandemic hit. After focusing on students and families, she is again preparing to purchase a full-size facility.

She said the goal is to enroll 125 students between the current facility on 1st Ave North and a new building in downtown St. Petersburg. “So that you can still have that community feel, and kids and families still know each other,” Laurenzi added.

“Part of the reason we applied for this Yass Prize was to help offset some of those costs … So that we can purchase the facility that would allow us to enroll students from our waitlist and hit that max capacity.”

Christine Laurenzi recently took home $200,000 at the inaugural Yass Summit. She now hopes to win $500,000 or $1 million in the final round.

While Yass offers $500,000 to the finalists and $1 million to the competition’s winner, the new Parent’s Choice Award provides another $100,000. The public can vote in that category until the organization announces awardees Dec. 13 in New York City.

Indi-ED would become the second consecutive St. Pete school to make the competition’s final round. The Sail Future Academy, a nonprofit private school that teaches disadvantaged teens life skills, took home $500,000 in December 2022.

Laurenzi hopes to raise $1 million by January 2024. Indi-ED is well on its way to achieving that goal, but she noted that a downtown facility would cost $3 million to $5 million.

Laurenzi has received franchising inquiries and said hiring someone to help complete that process would provide an additional revenue stream without raising tuition. She also hopes to expand community service projects and re-enroll high school students.

“We’re pretty transparent with our kids – just in terms of everything – so they’re psyched,” Laurenzi said. “There’s no other way to put it. They know what they’ve been going through and the opportunities they have, and they are ready to expand that to more kids in our community.”

To vote on the Yass Prize’s Parent’s Choice Award, visit the website here.


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1 Comment

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    John Donovan

    October 17, 2023at3:10 pm

    Interesting story. Best wishes to Indi-ED. Kids can read before age 6, if you wish them too. Parental support and reading is the #1 predictor of academic success.

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