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SailFuture opens historic Norwood School, prepares high-risk youth for success

Mark Parker



SailFuture Academy's academic model centers around the the theme of entrepreneurship and building practical skills. Photos courtesy of Hunter Thompson.

SailFuture serves high-risk teens throughout the St. Petersburg community, and with the purchase and recent redevelopment of the historic Norwood Elementary School, the innovative organization is better equipped to prepare kids for success as adults.

SailFuture opened up its first residential home to teens in foster care in 2016. The organization invited six boys to live in a 4,500 square-foot waterfront home, and became their caregivers. The kids would spend six months out of the year traveling on the organization’s sailboat, an experience that Chief Operating Officer Hunter Thompson called a positive way to build relationships between the children and their guardians.

Taking high-risk teens to other countries to perform community service also proved to be a valuable educational opportunity, as they trained in maritime skills ranging from first aid to engineering.

SailFuture teaches kids professional skills in addition to STEM instruction.

“Sailing has always been a core component of how we teach and educate our kids,” said Thompson. “But when our kids aren’t traveling on a sailboat, we couldn’t just send them to an average public school.”

Thompson said moving around in the foster care system creates educational instability, and SailFuture quickly made it a priority to create its own school inside of The Waterfront House. However, he said the goal was always to create a real, brick-and-mortar school built on the same philosophy. The historic Norwood School building provided that opportunity.

Constructed in 1923 at 2154 27th Ave. N., the Norwood School was purchased by SailFuture in December of 2019. The building was subsequently remodeled and opened on Sept. 7 as the SailFuture Academy. In addition to serving as the organization’s educational headquarters, the facility will also support SailFuture’s case management, life skills center and mental health services.

The SailFuture Academy recently completed its first term of classes with 50 kids from both its residential program and the surrounding community. Initially intended as an all-boys school, the academy is now co-educational and offers bus service to its students. The school is private and nonprofit and serves high-risk kids in grades 9-12 who have become disengaged in traditional public school settings.

“Our target here is finding kids who are motivated by an experiential learning model,” said Thompson. “Kids who are interested in learning things that are practical and applicable.”

SailFuture focuses on making teens better professionals, entrepreneurs and business owners. Thompson said the school is designed to create skills that are practical in the “real world.” He adds that students are almost exclusively on scholarship, and many come from neighborhoods on the south side of St. Pete, such as Campbell Park and Jordan Park.

“Almost all of our families are on the Step Up for Students scholarship,” said Thompson. “That’s where the majority of the funding comes from, and the Step Up for Students scholarship focuses specifically on low-income families.”

SailFuture Academy uses the maritime and construction fields to teach problem-solving. Thompson called those industries the vessel for teaching practical skills with real-world applications. For example, he said, students in the first term we tasked with building a wooden bench. They first had to measure the wood accurately, which requires foundational math skills and the ability to add, subtract and multiply fractions.

The project also required the ability to use power tools, follow blueprints, measure and cut accurately, and assemble the parts. After the bench was complete, students had to then decide the best way to market and sell their product. Making a profit from their product also required calculating the cost of labor and materials.

A SailFuture student learns how to use a circular saw under the watchful eye of an educator.

Thompson said students spend one full day a week focused on maritime activities and sailing. While they teach kids to rig boats and manipulate sails, learning to communicate effectively to solve problems is the most important aspect of these exercises.

“If you’re on a small sailboat together, if you’re not communicating, you’re going to end up capsizing that boat,” explained Thompson. “We’re using sailing as a way to teach these kids how to effectively work in teams, and how to communicate to accomplish a common goal.”

In addition to maritime and construction activities, students also have business, communication, science, math and technology classes. Students take five courses throughout a term – which is between six and seven weeks long. The academy is open year-round with five terms to a school year. Thompson said there is a theme and common goal to each term, followed by an evaluation assessment. Students then enjoy a week off from school before returning.

SailFuture Academy’s educators have “quite a bit of experience” in public school settings but are now looking for a more effective means to connect with at-risk students.

Boys from both of SailFuture’s residential homes helped with the construction of the new school, from the flooring to the electrical wiring. SailFuture Academy plans to increase enrollment by 50 students for each incoming freshman class, bringing the total number of enrolled students to 200 by 2024.

In the end, the ultimate goal of the academy is to help provide economic freedom and social mobility for children from low-income families and places that lack opportunity.

“How can we empower them to get an education that’s going to ultimately make them successful in a professional career and successful as an independent adult,” asked Thompson rhetorically. “And with that, gain true economic freedom and have social mobility within this system and within society.”

To learn more about SailFuture, visit its website here.




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