New private school gives middle-schoolers a non-traditional option

CHRISTINA.KELSO@STAUGUSTINE.COM Principle Cristina Pope and Administrative Director Teri Aboulafia of The Pioneer School stand together on the front of private middle school’s new building at 105 Masters Drive in West Augustine on Thursday, July 13, 2017.

A new private middle school geared toward personalized, experiential learning will open its doors in St. Augustine this August.


The Pioneer School will offer a hybrid model of instruction, with students in grades 6 to 8 taking online classes through the Florida Virtual School, as well as hands-on enrichment activities such as boat building, gardening and robotics.

Currently, there are 10 students enrolled at Pioneer but administrators hope to boost that number before classes begin Aug. 14. The school had been loosely organized last year, meeting at different locations around town, but approval of a zoning exception by the city’s planning board Tuesday allowed the group to move into its permanent home at 105 Masters Drive.

The Pioneer School is leasing the two-story building on a corner lot which formerly served as a daycare facility.

Founders Teri Aboulafia and Cristina Pope met when Aboulafia’s two children participated in a “homestead camp” organized by Pope a year ago. Aboulafia has a 10-year-old son in the public schools; her 12-year-old daughter attended the St. Augustine Public Montessori School and will now enter Pioneer as a seventh-grader. Pope, a graduate of Oxford University and a veteran teacher, has homeschooled her own children through middle school. Her 15-year-old son, Isaac, will enter St. Augustine High School this year.

While both parents believe the Florida Virtual School platform is beneficial, they think students are better served with support from educators and their fellow peers.

“In some cases, they might not get an answer [from a Florida Virtual School instructor] back for 24 hours,” said Pope, who will be the principal/main teacher for Pioneer. “Here, they’re getting that help in real time.”

Aboulafia, the school’s administrative director, said a more intimate learning environment also allows Pioneer to better match students’ programs to their personal goals.

“We’d like to know when they come to us if they’re interested in going for AP, for example, so we can see what kind of course load they need,” said Aboulafia, “so it’s very tailored.”

Pope added, “We’re not hothousing students. We just want to encourage them to achieve at the highest level they’re capable of.”

Students will spend half the day doing online class work and the other half in activities out in the field. Some of those activities have included learning about dairy farming, visiting a polling center during election season, participating in 4-H competitions, going on science outings, creating their own websites and cooking classes.

According to the Pioneer School’s mission statement, “These hands-on learning experiences tie the students’ core studies to relevant life applications and develop their skills in leadership, citizenship, entrepreneurship, emotional intelligence, technology and practical life responsibilities.”

Pioneer also has a partnership with Heritage Boatworks, a local group run by Pope’s husband, Sam Turner, that builds replica historic boats and lets young people help on projects.

About half of the students signed up for classes at the Pioneer School come from homeschooling backgrounds; others from public schools or charters such as SAPMS or the Academy of Business and Leadership (ABLE), which was shuttered in 2015.

Annual tuition at Pioneer will be $5,500, with a 10 percent discout for siblings (students have to bring their own laptops to school).

There’s not much renovating administrators need to do to ready the school for its opening. But there are still desks and other supplies to be ordered and delivered. Aboulafia said she couldn’t wait to see students arrive on the first day at Pioneer’s “forever home,” adding, “This is all just a miracle, the way it’s all come together.”

The Pioneer School will hold an open house from 5 to 7 p.m. on Aug. 7 at the school, 105 Masters Drive. For more information, visit the school’s website at