By Michael Bradley
Special to Delaware Business Times
Kathy Craven has seen a lot during her 40 years at The Pilot School, but even she was surprised to see what was happening one morning, when she encountered a candidate for the school’s Board of Trustees hiding in the bushes during student drop-off.
Some heads of school might encounter that and make a quick, but discreet, call to security. Or, they might just throw a net over the guy. In this case, the subterfuge was completely innocent — and quite edifying. Before receiving a formal, well-rehearsed tour of Pilot, the man in the bushes wanted to observe how the teachers and students behaved when they arrived for school.
“He saw them enjoying themselves and saw happiness,” Craven said. “He wanted to see what the mood and culture of the school are.”
At Pilot and Centreville Layton School, there is an atmosphere of optimism, both for the work they do and for the future. Both schools educate students with “language-based learning issues,” which means they have trouble with one or more core areas — reading, writing, mathematics or listening. They may also struggle with attention, organizational and anxiety difficulties.
“The kids’ cognitive skills are normal, but they lack foundation skills to produce what their peers are producing,” said Craven, who began as a teacher at Pilot in 1976 and has been head of school for 20 years.
In many cases, the schools serve families that have become extremely frustrated with traditional learning environments, where big classes and an inability to recognize and address their children’s individual learning challenges prevail. They seek out Centreville Layton and Pilot to get kids more attention and take advantage of the schools’ experience with helping students surmount their educational obstacles.
“Some of our children have been woefully underserved at other schools,” says Bart Reese, who has been head of Centreville Layton for two years and directed Layton Prep for nine years before the schools merged in 2014.
Reese describes Centreville Layton as “transition and a nest school.” In other words, the 106 students at the pre-K-12 site can begin at 3 or 4 years old and continue through high school, or they can spend a few years on campus with the goal of re-entering a traditional setting. Craven says Pilot’s goal is quite counterintuitive in an independent school climate that faces tremendous enrollment challenges. “Our mission is to have them leave us,” she says. Most Pilot students stay at the school from three to five years before moving on, having benefitted from a variety of therapeutic programs and curriculums designed to build their weak areas.
The schools’ enrollment is low by design. Centreville Layton serves 106 students, while about 160 are at Pilot. Although it’s impossible to have a 1:1 teacher-to-student ratio, giving students more individual attention is vital when addressing learning challenges.
“We use a team effort,” Reese said. “We have a fleet of specialists, like speech pathologists, learning specialists and reading specialists. In many cases, we provide academic support and psychological support.”
Craven says the Pilot approach is two-pronged. Instructors focus on students’ areas of strength to build self-confidence while also implementing programs that can help them overcome their weaker areas. It’s a delicate balance, since no two students’ needs are similar. That’s why it is important to incorporate more holistic programs with the specific training. Pilot has moved onto a new, 50-acre campus that borders land belonging to the First State National and Brandywine Creek parks. That will allow for significant outdoor learning possibilities. Pilot also teaches life skills — sewing a button, checking a car’s tire pressure, making a grilled cheese sandwich — and has an emphasis on water safety. Students remain active throughout the day, which Craven says “primes them to be available to learn.”
As Pilot completes its new, 86,000-square-foot indoor facility, its success rate remains high. A new, 10-year study reveals that 98 percent of students who attended Pilot remain in the schools they enter after leaving Pilot. Eighty percent go on to college or a trade institution. The school’s endowment is a strong $8 million, and its future is bright.
“Until other schools develop programs so that schools like Pilot are not needed, then we will be able to differentiate ourselves,” Craven said.
Centreville School began as a pre-K-8 site and merged with Layton Prep — then a high school — to create an educational continuum that allows for an introduction and implementation of learning strategies across several years. Some parents are able to recognize a need in their children for Centreville Layton’s services almost immediately, while others need more time. As a result, students cycle onto campus at just about every age. The goal is the same for everyone enrolled: high school graduation and higher education, whether 12th grade ends at Centreville Layton or somewhere else.
Because several students do graduate from the school (13 did in the spring), the college counseling part of the equation is extremely important and begins quite early during the high school experience. In addition to providing educational and psychological support for students, Centreville Layton offers preparation for standardized testing and works to make sure all of the necessary documentation to get students extra help, more time on tests, etc. in college is completed. Twelve of the 13 2016 graduates are attending college, and Reese says it’s important for them to learn “how to advocate for themselves” on campuses, so that they can navigate the various departments that provide support and also communicate directly with professors to make sure their needs are met.
“At each level, it’s clear that our students are smart kids who just learn differently,” Reese said. “We provide a playing field where they can learn.”
Reese believes Centreville Layton will be able to continue its mission, even in a tricky enrollment climate, thanks to the growing amount of learning issue diagnoses and parents’ desires to assure their children the opportunities to find their ways through the academic maze.
“We’re offering a more individualized approach for students, so that each has his or her own plan,” Reese says. “To say that we are anticipating growth might be a stretch, but we should have stability.”
And something for everybody — even the guy in the bushes.