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iHawk Academy is sealing up the cracks in education

• Kate Wallace

iHawk Group Pic Indoors

All images are provided by iHawk Academy

Carrie Short, a career educator in St. Petersburg, Fla., was concerned when her high school started seeing an uptick in dropout rates and an overall decline in students engaged in learning.

It wasn’t because of a lack of effort on the part of her colleagues. The trend wasn’t unique to Seminole High School, either.

“We were teaching curriculum and great book skills, but no common sense for working in the world,” Short explained. “Students weren’t connecting with school or seeing why it mattered in their lives.”

Short believed classroom learning needed to be more flexible and fluid—yet, until recently, that wasn’t what she was seeing at her school.

So when Short was offered the opportunity to help develop an innovative learning environment from the ground up, she jumped at the chance. She now serves as department head of iHawk Academy at Seminole High School—one of the schools participating in the Pinellas Innovates initiative funded in part through a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Short sees iHawk as a special place meeting a need for Seminole students. “A lot of these kids could get lost in a school this large,” Short says. “But teaching staff in the academy refuse to let anyone fall through the cracks.”

From culture to curriculum, iHawk prepares students with 21st century skills—challenging students with project-based learning, long-term projects, team work, and internships and externships. The program’s unique approach includes a strong focus on giving students a choice and a voice in their learning.

“Each kid gets to choose what they research and choose how they will present their project,” explained Short. “It’s amazing how passionate students can get when they get to research what they want rather than what curriculum dictates.”

For example, in iHawk’s social studies class, students were tasked with a parent relocation project. Kids surveyed their parents, investigated potential new locations and presented an action plan for moving.

“Through research and speaking with their families, students found out what quality-of-life factors their families consider most important when moving to a new location,” Short said. “The kids really applied themselves because they wanted to do a good job representing their families’ best interests, and they could easily appreciate the real-world applications behind their work.”

iHawk Peer PresentationsThat easy appreciation, Short says, makes all the difference.

“In traditional classrooms, this project could have easily been a dive into a boring, outdated textbook and some online articles and converted into an essay. The interest and engagement by my students in iHawk projects versus what I used to see—there’s no comparison.”

Through an ongoing partnership with High Tech High, a San Diego-based charter school network that blends project-based learning with technology and relies heavily on student voices, iHawk continues to drive student learning.

Now close to wrapping up its first year, iHawk Academy serves 91 of Seminole High School’s 2,100 students. iHawk serves students from all backgrounds—from English language learners to academically gifted and struggling students. And they are eager to recruit new students to the program.

This spring, iHawk students planned and led a Discovery Night for interested eighth graders. Short gave students basic parameters, and students did everything else—from creating a brochure and video, to presenting to parents and giving testimonies.

After seeing these students lead the event with confidence and skill, Short says no one would ever believe they were the same timid students who were terrified of public speaking earlier this school year.

“Now it’s a piece of cake for them,” she said. “The amount of presentations and public speaking they’re doing means they will be well-prepared for the coming challenges of work and college.”

iHawk Group pic outdoors


iHawk’s project-based approach to learning isn’t the only disruptive change to the traditional classroom. It also permits students to master two subjects in a single course through blended subject classes. iHawk’s first blended subject course paired global studies with biology, where students undertook shared projects to see and experience the real-world connections between the two subjects. Next year, teachers will blend English I and World History.

Thanks to a new pilot program passed by the state legislature this year, iHawk and public schools in four other counties and the P.K. Yonge Laboratory School at the University of Florida are able to implement programs using Competency-Based Education—where students advance in subjects based on mastery of course material rather than seat time requirements. At iHawk, this means teachers can further explore personalized learning so students advance to higher levels of learning as soon as they demonstrate they’re ready for the next challenge.

Short believes iHawk is developing an effective framework that more Florida schools and districts will one day follow. “Just imagine how many students have been lost in the cracks because we failed to reach them,” Short said. “I hope every student can access an iHawk Academy soon.”

Visit ExcelinEd’s Policy Library to learn how your state can use Competency-Based Education to personalize education and meet all students at their own level, or contact to learn how ExcelinEd can support your state.

Competency-Based Education


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About the author

Kate Wallace @kstreetfla

Kate serves as the Director of Community Engagement (North Florida) for the Foundation for Florida's Future (AFloridaPromise). Prior to joining AFloridaPromise, Kate served as Legislative Coordinator for The Fiorentino Group, a Florida government affairs firm based in Jacksonville. Previously, Kate served as government affairs assistant for the Washington office of Triadvocates, an Arizona government relations firm, and as staff assistant for the Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., federal government relations office. As a college student, Kate interned for the White House in Vice President Dick Cheney’s Office of Domestic Policy and for former Florida Congressman Adam Putnam’s Capitol Hill office. A central Florida native, Kate graduated from University of Florida in 2007 with a B.S. in Public Relations. Contact Kate at