Engaged Learning: The Pilot Experience

This article was written by Ava Fitzgerald, a junior in the Journalism class.


On a recent day at U-32, the students in the Pilot room gathered around and decided that they wanted to have a little break from their schoolwork. “It was funny to think that while everyone else was in normal classes we were having a great yoga session,” Dylan Hinchliffe said. 


Colby Frostick, Dylan Hinchliffe, and Jasmine Gruen are three juniors at U-32 who participate in Pilot. The program has been around since 2011, and is a way for students to learn alternatively. They make their own schedule, and spend most of their out of class time in the Pilot room. 


Colby Frostick hitting a chord on his electric guitar


These students still go to some classes, but that is not their main way of learning. They come up with other ways to get credits. Jasmine gets her English credits through “reading books that focus on mental health and mental illness, and then writing analysis papers on whether or not they’re accurately portrayed.” 


Jasmine wants to be a psychologist, so she’s curated a schedule to help her do that. She takes two classes outside of pilot: psychology and financial literacy.


She’s also focusing on her music. She spends the open time in her schedule with her guitar, “to just play and practice and mess around, and I’ve written a new song because of it.” 


Jasmine Gruen presenting her learning and projects


The Pilot program gives students an opportunity to expand their knowledge based on  their interests. Jasmine said she’s become more confident and involved in school. She went from not doing well, to being in leadership positions. Jasmine Gruen runs the SSJ Task Force, does work for GLAMM, and also is working with middle schoolers.“Since I’ve joined pilot I’ve noticed an enormous transformation within myself,” Jasmine said. 


Dylan and Colby are also focusing on music and their band, Vision For The Blind. “Before Pilot it was just a side hobby,” Dylan said. “But now it’s most of my day.” 


This program helps students who struggle to learn in a traditional structure. Colby benefits from Pilot as a student who struggles with ADHD. The Pilot Program gives him a place to work at the pace he needs. “I can’t think of any other class that would allow you to take such an important break that every person needs,” Dylan said. 


Dylan Hinchliffe Jamming out


While Pilot is very beneficial for some students, it won’t work for everyone. “It also comes with the price of having to build your own curriculum,” Colby said. 


Chris Blackburn is a teacher at U-32 who was on the initial committee to create the Pilot program. He says that to be a successful Pilot student they need to “believe in themselves and in taking control of their learning.” In Pilot you make your own schedule to work around the classes you need and decide your own due dates. This means that you have to be on top of your work instead of a teacher telling you what to do. 


Pilot students have to unlearn things they previously learned about school routines and their expectations of what school looks like. Students need to be on top of their schoolwork, “Take control, you know, and own it and realize it’s your life and the stuff you’re learning is for you.” Chris said. 


Pilot can also open doors for students, giving them access to great people in the community. “We got our first legit gig, June 18th, because of the really strong connections we got to Kris Gruen through Pilot,” Colby said.


Colby and Dylan playing with Kris Gruen


Pilot has given students a way to be in control of their learning, a chance to learn things that interest them and challenge them. “It has absolutely redefined what school is to me,” Colby said. Pilot has given him a space where he can prioritize mental health, and he gets to learn about things exclusively tailored to his future.

“If you’re willing to do it, and you have the time and mindset to do it, you get a much more engaging and enriching learning experience.” Colby said. “I get the same education but for stuff that’s more applicable to what my future looks like.”

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