Schools in Arizona, Florida are top winners in national entrepreneurship competition

SailFuture Academy in St. Petersburg, a tuition-free high school that leverages project-based learning and apprenticeships to prepare students for college and life, is one of eight schools selected as national finalists for a $500,000 prize.

Arizona’s only public school for students with autism took home the $1 million Yass Prize for innovation, while a Florida private school that seeks to help at-risk youth was among eight finalists that received $500,000 each on Wednesday.

The grand prize recognizes Arizona Autism Charter School’s efforts to expand its unique individualized learning programs, which are rated exemplary by Arizona, and supports the creation of a national accelerator for autism-focused charter schools that will enable similar schools to be established in every state.

Diana Diaz-Harrison explained why she founded the schools during the rigorous Yass Prize competition.

“As an autism mom, I don’t want my kid to be seen as disabled. I want him to be seen as a doer, intelligent, productive and these charter schools that we are starting across America will help our children be neurodiverse, be who they are and be fulfilling, productive citizens,” she said in a news release.

Finalist SailFuture Academy in St. Petersburg, Florida, a school for troubled youth whose founder was incarcerated as a student, is a tuition-free private “entrepreneurship” high school. Prize officials recognized the school for leveraging project-based learning and paid apprenticeships to prepare students in foster care for successful careers by focusing on the maritime business in addition to culinary and construction experiences.

“A lot of our kids have been in many, many different homes. The public education system can work really well for kids who stay in one place, but when you’re moving around so much, you can fall through the cracks,” co-founder Hunter Thompson told ReimaginED in 2021.

Thompson started SailFuture with co-founder Michael Long after the two met while in college.

The seven other finalists for the Prize also were motivated by personal situations or the lack of education opportunities that exist for underserved students.

“We were thrilled to find these education changemakers and are grateful to be able to reward their extraordinary creativity, tenacity and achievements, and to help them build for the future,” Janine Yass, founder of the Yass Prize with her husband Jeff, said in the release. “We should be giving every educator in the nation the freedom the Yass Prize winners have to tailor education to the needs of children, and give every parent the opportunity to choose specialized learning environments like these.

“After 25 years and countless dollars in charitable giving, this is by far the most impactful thing we have ever done with our resources.”

The additional prize winners, each of which will receive a $500,000 prize, include:

Capital Prep Schools, college preparatory charter schools serving students in some of the most dangerous communities in the country – the Bronx, Harlem and Bridgeport, CT – for its efforts to expand its capacity to provide historically disadvantaged students the skills they need to become responsible and engaged citizens for social change.

Northern Cass School District, an innovative public school district in North Dakota, for reimagining rural education and seeking to serve as a model for other districts seeking to implement a transformational, personalized, community-wide education model where other options for students are not available.

Oakmont Education, based in Akron, Ohio and with schools in nine other Ohio cities, for its ability to deliver personalized education and support career advancement for more than 3,000 students who struggle to navigate life with barriers such as poverty, addiction, homelessness, food insecurity, court involvement, mental health issues or raising children of their own.

Rapunzl, a national edtech company based in Chicago, for giving disadvantaged students an innovative and engaging way to learn about personal finance and investing, as well as for providing investment competitions where students compete for scholarships and cash prizes.

Soar Academy in Evans, Georgia, a non-traditional Micro-school for students with ADHD, Dyslexia, Autism, Auditory Processing Disorder and students facing remediation due to academic gaps, for guiding underserved students toward success with a one-on-one project-based learning environment both in-person and online.

unCommon Construction in New Orleans, Louisiana, with expansion into Minneapolis and other cities, for its unprecedented apprenticeship program that offers disadvantaged high-school students earn-while-you-learn opportunities for academic credit and scholarships for trade certifications, all of which are funded by revenue from selling houses participating students build.

Urban Preparatory Academy, in Wichita, the only African American private school in Kansas, for providing every student with an individual learning plan to get them reading on grade level and beyond. Infused with a focus on character and community engagement, the school’s efforts translate into a 100% acceptance rate into private high schools.

The 2022 competition attracted applications from some 2,700 organizations from 49 states, including public schools, private schools, charter schools, micro-schools, learning pods, organizations providing hybrid- and personalized-learning arrangements, and education technology companies.

Four other Florida schools, Hope Ranch Learning Academy, Kind Academy, RCMA Immokalee Community Academy  and Colossal Academy also won grants in earlier phases of the competition.

Formally called the Yass Prize for Sustainable, Transformational, Outstanding and Permissionless Education, the annual prize exists to recognize and reward outstanding education providers and to amplify their work through financial support, collaboration, coaching, encouragement and an extensive mentorship network.

The Center for Education Reform (CER), Washington, DC, administers the prize and houses the Yass Foundation for Education.

Jeanne Allen, director of the Yass Foundation and founder and CEO of CER, said the awards program is helping to build a “critical mass of innovation and success” beyond the confines of America’s troubled public-school systems and capturing the attention and interest of thousands of educators and parents who want to be freed from bureaucracy to serve students in unique and innovative ways.

“Through Janine and Jeff’s extraordinary generosity, we can not only reward the best-in-class providers who deliver outstanding education when it is most needed, but provide a benchmark for all to emulate,” said Allen. “We are proud to celebrate the type of innovative work that will chart the future for sustainable and transformational opportunities for students—in permissionless settings.”

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BY Lisa Buie

Lisa Buie is senior reporter for NextSteps. The daughter of a public school superintendent, she spent more than a dozen years as a reporter and bureau chief at the Tampa Bay Times before joining Shriners Hospitals for Children — Tampa, where she served for nearly five years as marketing and communications manager. She lives with her husband and their teenage son, who has benefited from education choice.