New Drexel Fund-backed school to offer autonomy through competency-based education

A private elementary school that emphasizes self-paced, competency-based learning is set to open next year in the Sarasota community of Newtown.  

Newtown was founded by Black residents who were forced to leave Overtown, a vibrant area near downtown Sarasota.  

Today, the community features an African American Cultural Resource Center and a $58 million magnet high school with a state-of-the-art visual and performing arts program. 

The school: Star Lab  

Grades/ages served: The school plans to welcome its first kindergarten cohort and add grades until it serves students through fifth grade. 

The founder: Alison Rini brings expertise in gifted education as well as helping students overcome challenges and disabilities from more than two decades teaching in public and private schools. She taught at P.S. 6 (Manhattan) and St. Croix Country Day School (U.S. Virgin Islands), and served as principal at Island Village Montessori, a Sarasota charter school.  

The vision: Star Lab intends to emphasize “learning and joy.” According to the Drexel Fund, Rini’s vision is a true collaboration between teachers, families and students that offers self-paced progress in each subject, real-time feedback and project-based learning. The school will allow students to run and play every hour and offer mindfulness exercises. 

Alison Rini

In her own words: “A student’s path is not aligned to grade levels, but to academy skills. Students can progress at their own pace through each content area – they can move faster or slower as needed.” 

Where Rini got help and where you can, too: The Drexel Fund is a national venture philanthropy that provides financial support and mentoring to educational entrepreneurs seeking to launch and scale private schools focused on underserved communities.  

Drexel will offer free information sessions starting Oct. 10 for first-time private school founders to learn the basics of school development and hear from leaders who have launched private schools.  

Founders who are already on the path to opening schools may apply for the Founders Program, a one-year paid fellowship that helps leaders continue to plan and open schools in Florida, Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, Louisiana, North Carolina and Arizona. 


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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.