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New partnership helps at-risk teens navigate life

Mark Parker



SailFuture Academy staff and students. The school provides project-based education, counseling mental health services and job training. Photos provided.

CareerSource Pinellas has invested in a unique career preparatory school’s holistic approach to providing disadvantaged teens with the life skills needed to become successful adults.

St. Petersburg-based SailFuture Academy is a tuition-free, nonprofit private school that garnered national acclaim for its innovative education model. Annual sailing trips are a key programming aspect that teaches maritime skills and fosters collaboration and relationships.

CareerSource Pinellas’ governing board recently selected SailFuture through a competitive request for proposals (RFP) process to administer and expand its youth services initiatives. About 40 high school-aged students will each receive up to $15,000 in training assistance funding to help them land jobs in high-demand occupations and emerging industries.

They will also participate in paid internships with local employers. However, Steven Meier, CEO of CareerSource Pinellas, said SailFuture’s mentoring and counseling services set it apart from other occupational training programs.

“I’m trying to think outside the box with how we offer youth services,” Meier said. “I’m excited that this partnership is really preparing youth for self-sufficiency in the future.”

Steven Meier (second from back right) with SailFuture students at a recent awards ceremony. CareerSource is expanding its partnership with the academy.

SailFuture began as a residential home for foster care teens in 2016. The organization bought the historic Norwood School at 2154 27th Ave. N. in St. Petersburg in December 2019, and students have led remodeling efforts on the 99-year-old facility ever since.

The academy immerses students in construction, maritime and culinary social enterprises. The kids built the classrooms they learn from, laid the floors they walk on and planted the grass where they gather at lunch and after school.

Students complete paid internships and apprenticeships through school-owned businesses and revenue funds scholarships. High-risk teens also take math, science, English and business courses, and the life skills curriculum teaches them how to lease an apartment, buy a car and open a bank account.

Michael Long, CEO of SailFuture, said community teens could join students in CareerSource’s Youth Connects program and receive the academy’s wraparound services. He called those “critical” for workplace success.

“It’s not saying, ‘Hey, here’s some basic training, and we’re going to sign you up for some interviews and help you get a job,'” Long explained. “It’s, ‘Hey, what are your whole needs as a person,’ and having integrated mental health services in a way that our kids are actually going to buy into it.”

He added that mentors and life coaches would drive participants to their first interviews. Workshops and life skills training helps them develop coping mechanisms and navigate disputes with co-workers or supervisors.

“Here’s a 15, 16, or 17-year-old kid that is facing all of the barriers that you could possibly imagine,” Long elaborated. “And us looking at that kid and saying, ‘What are your dreams? And how do we wrap the right care, love and support around you, so you can take steps you feel like are actually getting you closer to that dream.’”

Michael Long (second from right), CEO of SailFuture, is now recruiting business owners to partner with the school.

The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act funds the Youth Connects initiative. The goal is to mitigate employment barriers faced by out-of-school and in-school youth.

Impediments include homelessness, a low-income household, disabilities, a lack of basic skills and English proficiency and raising a child. Meier said SailFuture’s program would give them real-world opportunities and experience to overcome those obstacles.

“These are the kids who aren’t good with traditional high schools,” he said. “These are the kids that will learn by doing.”

The academy also teaches entrepreneurial skills, and Long believes operational education could help them become project managers or start small businesses. He credited Meier and CareerSource’s board for not simply fulfilling employment requirements and instead investing in lifelong success.

Meier wanted to try something new this year, despite the Department of Commerce (formerly the Department of Economic Opportunity) more closely monitoring local initiatives and funding. “I think we’re doing the right thing for these students,” Meier added.

Consolidation also looms on the horizon. State leaders are merging Pinellas and Hillsborough County’s employment agencies, and Meier pledged to protect local employees, partners and job seekers through that process.

He noted that CareerSource Florida holds an annual workforce summit in September. Meier hopes “to see so much success in this first year” that he presents the model to the other 23 CareerSource boards in 2024, helping ensure the program endures the merger.

Long is encouraging area employers to participate. He said that would better align internships with long-term goals and bolster outcomes for the business community and students.

“We’re completely reinventing what high school looks like,” Long said. “Having a robust network of employment partners that get excited about this, believe in this and want kids to come intern – that are actually excited to be there – is a really important part of this being successful.”



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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Scott K. Wagman

    Scott K. Wagman

    August 9, 2023at4:12 pm

    Mike Long has founded and led SailFuture for many years now. His persistence, initiative and leadership has propelled SailFuture into the effective school that it is now.
    I urge any and all active business leaders to take a look at what Mike and his team has accomplished and consider contributing to this great cause.

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