University of South Florida

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Doctoral student receives national fellowship from Drexel Fund to launch inclusive private school

Gretchen Stewart headshot

Gretchen L. Stewart

University of South Florida (USF) doctoral student Gretchen L. Stewart was awarded a fellowship by The Drexel Fund to help launch a new private school in the Tampa Bay area. 

The Drexel Fund Founders Program is a one-year fellowship that helps outstanding leaders already on the path to launching a school continue to plan and open an innovative and effective private school. Through the fellowship, school founders develop their school’s education model and engage in the nuts and bolts of its launch.

As part of the program, Stewart will receive a stipend and an additional allowance for professional capacity-building activities to help prepare her to open the school. She will also participate in coaching and training sessions, visit other high-performing schools and be eligible for additional funding and start-up support opportunities.

Stewart is a doctoral candidate in the USF College of Education’s Curriculum and Instruction doctoral program with a concentration in Special Education. Her research interests center on educational neuroscience and the study of movement for improved learning and cognition.

Stewart says she will use her expertise to launch “Smart Moves Academy,” a first-of-its-kind private school that will focus on “brain relevant, inclusive education.”

Inspired by her 14-year-old son, Ari, who was labeled with Autism at age 3, Stewart says she struggled to find an inclusive learning environment where her son could thrive. She developed a homeschool curriculum for him that resembles the model she aims to implement at Smart Moves Academy, which is scheduled to open in fall 2022.  

“I know what the struggle for a meaningful education is to a parent,” Stewart said. “We can do it. We know everything we need to know, right now today, to provide a wonderful, excellent education for every child that is a lifelong, positive force in a person’s life…That’s what I’m designing this school to be. It’s wonderful to know that an organization like Drexel sees my vision and thinks that it’s worthwhile to support in a big, significant way.”

Participants in the Drexel Fund Founders Program open schools with a student body that is at least a third low-income, are academically rigorous, financially sustainable and help students develop strong character. Stewart says the Smart Moves Academy team will introduce their model to local communities through a series of camp programs this summer.

Ann Cranston-Gingras, PhD, associate dean for academic affairs in the College of Education and Stewart’s major professor, said Stewart’s distinct focus from the time she entered the doctoral program has been to learn as much as she can about the connections between movement and learning and how understandings from neuroscience can and should be applied to education.

“Gretchen’s vision is to create and open a school where children with neurocognitive diversity will be successful, happy and healthy,” Cranston-Gingras said. “Few students come into a doctoral program with such focus and purpose. The awarding of the Drexel fellowship is testament to Gretchen’s unwavering perseverance and a momentous step toward the realization of her vision.”

More information about Smart Moves Academy is available by contacting Gretchen L. Stewart at  

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About the USF College of Education:

As the home for more than 2,200 students and 130 faculty members across three campuses, the University of South Florida College of Education offers state-of-the-art teacher training and collegial graduate studies designed to empower educational leaders. Our college is nationally accredited by the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP), and our educator preparation programs are fully approved by the Florida Department of Education.