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“You Change the World, Kid by Kid”

David Wilson

When David Wilson ’66 decided to open his own school thirty years ago, he had in mind certain aspects of education that he had experienced—some he appreciated and some he thought he could have done better himself.

At the top of his list of positive educational experiences were things he found at IUP.

“The classes were small. You knew everybody. You knew your professors. You went to their offices,” he said in an interview at Long Trail School, the school he heads today in Dorset, Vt.

“Long Trail School is really a life-changing experience,” Wilson said. “There’s an excitement when you walk in. We deal with kids from a total-package perspective; we get involved in their lives. It’s hard to close down here at the end of the day because the kids won’t leave.”

The feeling of warmth surrounding the campus, nestled on fourteen acres in the shadow of southern Vermont’s Bromley Mountain, makes it easy to understand why it’s so hard to leave.

After all, when Wilson first arrived in Vermont, he didn’t want to leave either.

“I liked the rural nature. It was just so radically different from cities. It was just a really wonderful rural experience,” he said of the summer he spent in Putney, Vt., preparing and presenting the thesis for his graduate degree from Antioch College in Ohio.

Creating “The Product”

The school's name comes from the Long Trail, the historic path that starts in Kentucky and winds northward to Maine.

Back when the plans for the school were taking shape, “No one could agree what to name it,” Wilson said. “I just picked the name out of desperation. I spotted it on the map, the name sounded catchy, and I was exhausted.”
 
Considering the trail his life took to the point where he is the New England headmaster with the longest tenure, exhaustion may be understandable.

David Wilson and students at the Long Trail School

David Wilson and students at the Long Trail School

Wilson grew up in the Wilkinsburg section of Pittsburgh. He had a private school experience himself at Valley Forge Military Academy in Wayne, Pa., and graduated in 1961. He applied to and was accepted by several colleges and universities, some of them private, and in the end settled on Indiana State College. “The people at Indiana were really enthusiastic about the school,” he said.

Wilson majored in education and social sciences, concentrating on sociology. One of his most vivid memories is of a geography class with Thomas Gault. 

“There’s no easy way to make a dream come true. You have to be willing to do everything possible...”

“Man, was it hard. He was an incredible teacher,” he said, explaining that Gault’s lecture each day would fill three chalkboards—all without looking at his notes. “I was so impressed with that. I really learned a lot.”

Wilson explored a different part of campus life as a Sigma Tau brother. He did his student teaching in the Butler Area School District his senior year. Comparing that experience to the small-school experiences before and after, he said, “I was still meeting teachers on the last day.”

When he graduated in 1966, Wilson joined VISTA, the domestic peace corps. At his assignment in a Denver, Colo., public housing project, he put to use skills from Spanish classes at Valley Forge and Indiana.

Wilson then went to graduate school, interning as a teacher in an inner-city school in southeast Washington, D.C., and later did substitute teaching. In 1970, he came across an ad for a driver’s education teacher at Burr and Burton Academy in Manchester, Vt.

Grateful for driving courses he’d taken to improve his grade-point average at Indiana, Wilson hopped into his pink-and-white ’57 Chevy and drove from Washington to Manchester on a Thursday. By Monday, he had been hired and started teaching.

After a year at the school, Wilson started a program for high-risk students. Through this endeavor he met Rene, who would eventually become his wife, and he and the program gained statewide recognition.

In January, 1975, David and Rene took a deep breath and a huge step. “I had been talking about starting a school for a very long time,” Wilson said.

In Vermont, many towns are too small to afford to operate schools, so in a lot of cases, after fifth grade the towns offer—through taxpayer dollars—school vouchers to families. In the area around Dorset, Wilson said there are twelve towns that don’t have schools for students in grades six through twelve.

“We compete in the marketplace,” he said, “against other private schools everywhere. Kids enroll in our school because we’re the best at what we do. That means we have to work very diligently. They come because of the quality of the product we offer.”

In 1975 that product was offered by just three teachers to only fourteen students. The school’s budget was $18,000, and Wilson was short $12,000 in operating expenses. Today at Long Trail School fifty employees educate 140 students, working with a budget of $3 million. Fundraising is a constant challenge, but Wilson's personal touch with potential donors has made him successful.

“They [the school's original contributors] liked the idea and supported me, and they led me to other wealthy people,” he said, noting the eight capital campaigns Long Trail School's trustees have run—all of which have surpassed their goals.

“We raise over $700,000 a year,” he said, making it possible for about 60 percent of LTS students to attend on scholarship.

Sticking To It

Wilson started the school in a rented community center and later convinced a farmer to sell him three acres of land, which he promised to pay for over the course of forty years. The original building was 2,500 square feet; today the school encompasses twenty-five times that amount.

Part of Long Trail School’s appeal lies in the large number of programs and variety of classes offered to students, all through an intimate 10-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio. The students address their teachers on a first-name basis.

“That just evolved naturally from the beginning,” Wilson said. “It enhances the personal relationship faculty members have with every kid.”

Such positive relationships translate into positive academic experiences. “These days,” Wilson said, “if you’re taking kids from the general public, you try to provide as many programs and services that you can run successfully. Our kids graduate with many more credits” than are required.

“Our goal is to get them ready for college, even if they don't want to go,” he said. “The other part is that we evaluate a student’s academic record, and we try to match his or her interests and career goals.” In the last seven years, all LTS graduates have been accepted to college.

“Many are first-generation kids from rural farming communities,” he said, explaining that a college education hadn’t necessarily been obtainable for their parents.

One of the programs Wilson is proud to offer aids learning-disabled, college-bound students. Teachers mainstream them through college-preparatory and, in some cases, even advanced-placement curricula while focusing special attention on language arts skills—reading, writing, and spelling.

“It’s how you learn to deal with a learning disability,” Wilson said. “It’s a really great program.”

Another great program broadens the horizons of American and international students alike by inviting kids from such places as Indonesia, Spain, Africa, Germany, and Hong Kong, among others, to study at Long Trail School and stay with the families of students.

“They really get to know the American culture,” Wilson said. “We have all kinds of kids—all kinds of religion, kids of color—we mix them in with our Vermont kids.”

Animals, as well as kids, have found a place in the comfortable school culture. Four animals in particular who are part of the Long Trail family are the resident cats, Junior and Miss Priss, who get along with the humans but not at all with each other, and dogs Beverly (a Labrador) and Dolly (a Golden Retriever), who are friends.

“They go to classes and jump into the laps of students,” Wilson said, stressing the school’s welcoming mission: “We’ll take all kids and most animals.”

The school also takes a lot of employment applications every year—at least  fifty of which are unsolicited—from interested educators. Wilson said he would welcome student teachers from IUP if they would like to join an IUP alumnus in a unique environment.

“The faculty members make a lot of their own decisions,” he noted as a selling point.

Wilson’s advice for every IUP student is straightforward. “If you have a dream and you want to do something, then you have to stick to it and you have to work really hard,” he said. “There’s no easy way to make a dream come true. You have to be willing to do everything possible, without breaking the law, and be aggressive and creative.”

Wilson’s pride in the accomplishments of Long Trail School's graduates is evident in the way he talks about them. “We've had nine hundred kids come through this place, and the rewards are phenomenal. We have graduates out there who are stockbrokers and others who are working in soup kitchens,” Wilson said.

“You change the world, kid by kid.”

Since graduating from IUP in 2002, Katy Gresh has worked in communications, government, and politics in Washington, D.C., and Western Pennsylvania.