March 25, 2024

Women’s History Month: Inspiring Stories of Women School Founders

By Courtney Bell and Jarad Davis

This Women’s History Month, let’s celebrate the visionary women who have transformed education. From groundbreaking researchers to courageous educators, their dedication ignited a movement for progress and equity. 

We’re introducing you to two dynamic school leaders, Shiren Rattigan and Ayana Verdi, who are disrupting inequitable systems and designing innovative models for young people to thrive socially, emotionally, and academically.

But our journey isn’t over. This month is also an opportunity to acknowledge the ongoing work needed to ensure equality and access for all.

Shiren Rattigan, Colossal Academy

Shiren Rattigan

Shiren prioritizes building an affirming and personalized learning environment. “By staying small,” she says, “I can address the unique needs of students.” Understanding that students have diverse talents and needs, Shiren doesn’t rely on innovative tools but rather on innovative and adaptable structures that center young people.

Colossal Academy rests on three pillars: future-forward competencies, super-personalized education, and experiential learning. Shiren is convinced that students should develop entrepreneurial mindsets that equip them to be effective stewards of their social and natural worlds and be exposed to relevant, rigorous, and experiential learning. Given this educational philosophy and core values, it makes sense when Shiren shares, “We’re going to learn a lot of things, but our ultimate thing is to serve the communities that we’re in and be vehicles of transformation.” 

As a result of her innovative approach to learning, Shiren has seen exponential growth with her students. Not only are her young people succeeding academically, but they are reporting feelings of joy and belonging, and parents are enrolling younger siblings in the school. Shiren models what it looks like to prioritize the whole child and provide limitless opportunities. 

As a woman school founder and school leader, Shiren acknowledges the challenges of gender bias but emphasizes the collaborative nature of education: “Education, like mothering, is inherently communal and collaborative.” She encourages aspiring leaders to have a clear vision and “quench that inner saboteur.” And Shiren believes women are at the forefront of education innovation. “This next round of innovation and reimagining education is going to be led by women, and mothers, and caregivers raising children,” she says. 

Shiren’s vision is ambitious—a Colossal Academy in every Florida county within five years, followed by national and international expansion. With Shiren as an example, the future of education seems bright.

Ayana Verdi, Verdi EcoSchool

Ayan Verdi

Ayana doesn’t shy away from pushing boundaries. “The biggest challenge was understanding how much all adults are tied to this idea of what education must look like,” she says. “If it doesn’t do this, it’s not education. If it doesn’t have a building, it’s not education. If there’s not a classroom, it’s not education.” When state regulations deemed “school” a building-bound entity, she went before the state Department of Education and asked them to redefine what a school could be.

Verdi EcoSchool embraces the community as its campus. Students venture beyond the classroom, collaborating with data scientists, developing a food share program, and facilitating positive police-community relations through their “Hey Blue” initiative. This program, born from a student-led social entrepreneurship class, exemplifies the school’s action-oriented approach and has been adopted in seven states.

As a woman of color leading in education, Ayana understands the power of community. She emphasizes the importance of finding allies and mentors who share similar experiences. Her leadership style is one of grace and education, even in the face of condescension. She champions the power of collective leadership, encouraging women of color to support one another. “If you’re blessed to be within a community where there are lots of people who are founders or leaders who happen to be women; who happen to be women of color, hold their hands,” she says. “Hold their hands, because they need you. We need each other.”

Ayana is adamant that she doesn’t see herself as a trailblazer. Rather, she is following in the footsteps of the many Black women who raised their voices for equity in education. That’s what keeps her leading despite the obstacles that present themselves. 

Her future vision focuses on establishing micro-schools as sustainable options and partnering with public districts to create “schools within schools.”  With her dedication to innovation and community, Ayana’s vision for a transformed education seems well within reach.


Transcend supports communities to create and spread extraordinary, equitable learning environments.

Stay Connected

Transcend is a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit that operates nationally.