Peek Into Pilot School's New Cutting-Edge Campus

It was designed to create the best possible environment for young minds to develop, no matter what paths they might take.


A boy of 5 stands at a table in the classroom. He pays close attention to his teacher as she works through a lesson. But he won’t sit, like his classmates do. Not him. 

In many schools, that would be a breach of protocol, like it was in the boy’s two preschools. Unable to follow their rules, he was asked to leave both. 

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But at the Pilot School, it doesn’t matter whether he or any of the other children sit or stand during class. They may even need to leave the room sometimes, perhaps to sit in the “hugging chair” or just to take a little time out. They’ll go back to class when they’re ready. And when they do, there will be no judgment or punishment, just a welcoming environment that acknowledges they learn differently than other children do. So they might stand instead of sitting. They might speak out a little too often. Or not at all.

“We think there is something wrong with the educational system,” says Kathy Craven, who has spent 40 years at Pilot, the last 20 as head of school. “It’s still operating in the 19th century. Our program is cerebral, but it starts with the senses and body and is about being ready to learn.

“When a child feels more available to learn, he or she will do better. We want an environment that helps kids learn to be available.”

Since 1957, Pilot has worked with children who are uncomfortable in conventional learning environments, which often aren’t suited to their styles of learning. The school’s goal is to identify each child’s specific triggers, develop a plan to maximize his or her learning potential, then return them to the mainstream.

Pilot isn’t looking for students who will stick around from prekindergarten through eighth grade. The school wants to perform the necessary educational adjustments, build its students’ skills and confidence, then send them into the world, ready for its challenges.

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If that takes only two years, so be it. If it takes eight, that’s OK, too. Pilot’s students have the cognitive skills necessary to do work through college, but they lack the foundations necessary to produce at the rate their peers do. At a time when independent schools are trying everything possible to boost enrollment, the average Pilot stay is three to five years, as counterintuitive an approach as there can be to sustaining a school’s fiscal health.

“We uncover how a child learns, utilize his or her strengths and our therapeutic programs to build on their weak areas,” Craven says. “We can design and implement programs that will build their skills and challenge their areas of strength.”

“We uncover how a child learns, utilize his or her strengths and our therapeutic programs to build on
their weak areas,” says Kathy Craven, head of school. “We can design and implement programs
that will build their skills and challenge their areas of strength.”//Carlos Alejandro

Toward that end, Pilot opened a new state-of-the-art campus in mid-November, with a building designed to create the best possible environment for young minds to develop, no matter what paths they might take. Every part of the school has been designed for a specific purpose. Hallways where the early grades are housed are narrower than the middle-schoolers’ halls, and they have lower ceilings so children won’t feel lost. The older kids will be prepared for bustling middle and high school corridors.

There is a tree top science lab and a recording studio. The pool has therapeutic and competitive applications. A classroom-in-the-round can be used for everything from dramatic presentations to counseling sessions. Tranquility rooms help calm students who have been overstimulated. They feature sensory-based materials that help prepare young people for their return to the classrooms. The library has a two-story sliding board. 

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The whole building, bathed in natural light, incorporates nature from the surrounding 50-acre campus into learning like few other places can. 

Pilot is fun. It’s cool. And it is perhaps the ideal place for a child who is searching for a way to succeed but can’t quite find the way. 

“The new school is a 50-acre platform that represents the converging of national research in education with 60 years of Pilot’s experience in learning how kids learn,” says Jamie Murray, a board member and parent of a Pilot alum. “In this wonderful new place, we allow Kathy and her staff to be role models for helping children succeed.”

John and Marika Schoolar were trying to find the right place for their son, Ben, and those available to them in Austin didn’t offer “a clear trajectory” for him. Though John is a native of Houston and Marika had spent most of her life in Texas, they knew it was imperative to find the right spots for both Ben and their other child, Libby, now a ninth-grader who is thriving at Blair Academy in New Jersey.

The Schoolars sent information to a variety of schools detailing Ben’s academic needs and his test scores, which neither John nor Marika felt indicated his potential or represented his personal story. Their search covered schools from Portland, Maine, to Asheville, N.C. They met with Craven for 90 minutes in July 2012 and knew immediately that they had found a home. And that was the old Pilot, whose campus looked no different than any other school’s. The physical plant matters, but for the Schoolars, the people inside it were far more important.

“We called on the spur of the moment on a Thursday or Friday, and when we met with Kathy on Monday, she knew our son,” Marika says. “I cried a lot during that meeting, because she just got [Ben]. She gave us hope.”

When Ben started at Pilot, he was struggling with language and visual processing issues. Other schools gave him mazes to navigate, which Marika considered “almost cruel.” Pilot has addressed those areas, along with Ben’s difficulty focusing and his fine motor skill development. “He has atrocious handwriting,” Marika says.

One of Pilot’s strongest areas is its comprehensive approach to its students. Few schools can offer educational and therapeutic solutions under the same roof. But students who need occupational and physical therapies can receive them every day at Pilot. Pilot also participates in a robust athletic program that includes competition with other schools. 

Ben will stay at Pilot “until they kick him out,” Marika says with a laugh—likely two more years. By then, he should be ready for a conventional high school, which is Pilot’s goal for every student. According to Craven, over the past 10 years, 98 percent of students have remained in the schools where Pilot has placed them. Libby Schoolar is extremely happy at Blair, and her parents hope Ben has the same secondary school experience. “The school is filling in the missing links in his education,” Marika says. “They are making sure his base is strong.”

Pilot was founded in 1957 by Mary Carpenter, whose child was having difficulties in school, along with the head of Tatnall School, who recognized that some of that school’s students were grappling with their work. The first home for its first student body—five—was in the basement of Christ Church in Wilmington. When enrollment swelled to 15, Pilot purchased a duplex on Bancroft Parkway. In 1965, it moved into the facility on Garden of Eden Road that served until November, when it moved to the new campus on Woodlawn Road. The 85,000-square-foot facility cost $34 million. It holds 150 students (with a capacity of 180) in 25 conventional classrooms and other learning areas designed to suit students like sixth-grader Gabriela Shulman.

Last November, the school moved to the new campus on Woodlawn Road. The 85,000-square-foot facility
cost $34 million. It holds 150 students (with a capacity of 180) in 25 conventional classrooms and other learning areas.//Carlos Alejandro

Despite conscientious attempts by teachers at the South Harrison (N.J.) School District to provide a foundation for Gabriela, her dyslexia proved too strong an opponent. She began at Pilot in January 2015 as a fifth-grader, with South Harrison paying the school’s $27,800 tuition. “The teachers [at South Harrison] did a great job of getting [Gabriela] ready to be at Pilot,” says Gabriela’s mother, Darcy Shulman. “Pilot is by far the best place for her to be.” The school doesn’t have a 1:1 student-teacher ratio, but its 5:1 relationship does allow teachers to provide individual attention and craft educational solutions that meet each student’s specific needs. 

Gabriela’s dyslexia was so profound, Shulman was afraid her daughter would never be able to drive, because she wouldn’t be able to read the street signs. “She reads them on the way to school now,” Shulman says. She also feared things like whether or not Gabriela would be able to read a menu when she went out with friends as a high schooler. That doesn’t seem to be much of an issue now. “I’m dumbfounded by her progress,” Shulman says. 

Her feelings are fairly standard for many Pilot parents, who often go through what school representatives refer to as a “grieving period” when they realize their children need more help than conventional educational settings can provide. Pilot’s alternative approach provides a haven, an opportunity and perhaps a last resort.

“Many parents think that if their child doesn’t thrive at Pilot, that child is going to be disabled for life,” Craven says. “Then they will have to take another turn in their expectations.”

The Pilot process is informed by a variety of factors, beginning with a heavy dose of study and a quest to be at the forefront of current educational techniques and philosophies. “We are research- and evidence-based,” Craven says. The school’s publication “Let’s Challenge the Myth of Normal” begins with the declaration that the school is “here to redefine teaching and learning.” Pilot isn’t merely trying to educate its students; it would like the overall approach to instructing all children to change. Instead of a linear model, the school uses “a spiral,” as Craven calls it. That means programs are crafted to foster success, not high test scores, and to create an environment in which students feel they can learn. Pilot students do have unique and sometimes substantial challenges, so traditional methods do not often work. But the school’s staff and board believe that every student would do well to attend a school that is more attentive to building confidence and skills instead of attending a school that follows an ages-old path. 

According to Jerome Heisler, a board member and past parent, many children go to Pilot frustrated and down because they haven’t thrived in previous environments. By blending therapy, unique instruction and the development of social skills, Pilot helps “kids leave here happy,” Heisler says. 

A big part of that equation is a heavy dose of nature. Getting dirty is considered part of the curriculum, so students spend a lot of time outdoors. Pilot has embraced the work of Richard Louv, a journalist whose books “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder” and “Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life” are vital components of the Pilot equation. Louv visited Pilot when the new campus opened, and the school has big plans for its expansive grounds. The kids benefit by seeing various ecosystems at work, by learning how to get around in the woods—by simply playing on the rocks outside the school at recess. Louv’s latest research suggests a “biological link between humans and nature,” according to Craven, and that provides a calming and comforting effect that can benefit Pilot students greatly.

“Our students are often highly stressed and have failed in class before coming here,” Craven says. “Nature provides a baseline for them and connects with the biochemistry in their brains. When you are stressed, you are not available. When you feel good, you are more confident and available to learn.”

Craven speaks of creating summer programs in the barn on campus and allowing children from the area to experience the outdoors through Pilot’s facilities. Nothing will be dismissed immediately. Someone asked about raising llamas. Why not?

“We love technology, but for every piece of technology, we add a bite of nature,” Craven says. “Having nature available for kids when they go through hard times can be helpful.”

The list of Pilot successes is long and impressive. The school boasts a 100 percent high school graduation rate, an indicator of its ability to place its students in other schools—mainstream, independent and charter—as well as the kids’ preparedness for learning. Though there are no Supreme Court justices or Nobel Prize winners among Pilot’s alumni, Craven says its former students are physicians and attorneys. They are graduates of Berklee College of Music and hold doctoral degrees in aeronautics. 

But big numbers don’t have the same impact as individual stories. 

When board member Jamie Murray’s daughter, Bree, struggled in preschool and kindergarten, he and his wife moved her to Pilot. She had been “having more trouble than other students,” one of Bree’s old teachers told them, and another believed “she needed a tutor.” Bree entered Pilot in third grade and left ready to thrive at Sanford School, from which she graduated with an early acceptance offer from Syracuse University. After college, she worked for the Sydney Olympic Committee and spent two years in Amsterdam. She is now a designer with a store in Centreville and two kids. 

“Bree learned the confidence and self-esteem that allowed her to stake out on her own,” Murray says. 

That’s the outcome Tara Mercante is hoping her son, Ethan, will experience. Ethan started at Pilot in kindergarten. He is now in second grade. Like many families, the Mercantes weren’t sure what to do when Ethan struggled early in his educational journey. They have been delighted with Pilot’s small class sizes, specialized academic attention and the occupational therapy he receives. Ethan’s confidence is growing, and the Mercantes have become vocal advocates for Pilot and its methods.

“Pilot is a place Ethan will be able to live up to his full potential,” says his mother, Tara Mercante. “I wish every school would provide opportunities like Pilot does.”

And understand that sometimes children have to stand up when it’s time to learn.

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