Ali Piltch ’10 is cleaning out her bedroom in the yellow house on the corner. She’s sifting through the contents of 27 years. Packing up her life to date.
The Piltch family is moving.
After 27 years, Head of School Steve Piltch and English and interdisciplinary studies teacher Sunny Greenberg are retiring from Shipley. Though the kids, Matt ’08, Ali, and Jamie ’13, have graduated from college and relocated, they consider Shipley their home. It is the place they always imagined they’d come back to.
In speaking with them, the heady cocktail of conflicting emotions is palpable: the joy of a new beginning, the excitement of the unknown, the deep satisfaction of a job well done, and the aching sentimentality of leaving a beloved place and its people.
“The months of May and June,” admits Steve with a catch in his throat “will be very difficult here.”
It is the summer of 1992. Bill Clinton is running against President George H. W. Bush. The European Union has just been founded, and there will not be an Apple iPhone® for 15 more years. Sunny Greenberg winds her way southward from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, with two small children, ages two and six months. She will meet up with Steve, Shipley’s newly appointed Head of School, who had arrived earlier to set up. After a wrong turn on 476, she pulls into the driveway of a yellow house, their yellow house, what is to become their family home.
“On our first day here,” shares Sunny, “we were sitting in the kitchen.” Steve laughs, knowing the story. “And water began to come through the ceiling!”
“The house had been freshly painted,” Steve adds, “but a pipe had broken upstairs. It makes sense; it’s a very old house. But we didn’t use that side of the house for three months,” he laughs, and then sighs with the memory.
“We really had no idea,” Sunny says, “just how intensely Shipley would become a family school for us, but very quickly, Shipley became our community, unassuming and unpretentious—a school with integrity.”
“It’s been a great place,” Steve summarizes, “from the first day we arrived.”
Though Steve and Sunny were deeply enamored with Shipley from the start, they wanted to give their children, now three in number, a choice. “Being the Head’s kid can come with complications and challenges,” says Steve. As the children grew older, Sunny and Steve offered each child the opportunity to look elsewhere for high school.
“My parents said, ‘Matt, you’ve been here the whole time. Are you interested in changing?’ I said, ‘The only schools I might consider changing to are Baldwin or Agnes Irwin,’” Matt laughs. “I told my dad, ‘I’m going to graduate from Shipley whether you’re here or not.’”
The same was true for Ali, who chose Shipley hands down. “I remember when my parents asked me if I wanted to look elsewhere. I never wanted to. Right outside my bedroom window is where I have learned many of the most important lessons of my life. I am going to miss this place very dearly. It made me who I am today, and my brothers who they are today.”
It wasn’t as clear-cut for Jamie. In tenth grade, he considered boarding schools. “It was important for me to look at other schools,” he says, and he researched many, eventually choosing to stay at Shipley. “Once I opted in, my perspective changed. I can now say that I definitely made the right decision to stay; Shipley prepared me incredibly well for life.”
The Dinner Conversation
Every evening, the Piltch family gathered around their kitchen table for dinner. “One of the nice things about living on campus,” says Steve, “was that I rarely had to miss dinner. As Head of School, I have many evening engagements, but, I can go home, have dinner with my family, and come back.”
“We ate together virtually every night,” says Sunny. “We sat down and talked and laughed and cried. Our conversations were passionate and loud. And people interrupted each other.”
“We spoke a lot about sports,” says Ali. “And when we were little, my dad used to make us share one good thing that happened that day. When it was his turn, he always said, ‘Coming home to see all of you,’ which we eventually disqualified because it was too easy,” she laughs.
“It was true, though,” says Steve.
“As we got older,” says Matt, “my siblings and I would be unafraid to voice our perspectives about what was going well and not going as well in the School. Our dad had the students’ perspective at the dinner table. The texture of the Shipley community was alive and well at the table because it was so much a part of our lives.”
Blurred Lines and
Shipley’s influence at the dinner table wasn’t the only way in which the boundaries of school and home blurred. For the Piltches, Shipley was home, and vice versa.
“Shipley as a community and as a school was my home for my entire life,” says Matt. “I didn’t have neighbors; I had the teachers over at school, and the soccer games outside my house. The fact that Shipley as an institution was my home has informed everything that I’ve done, and I’ll always be grateful to the School and the wonderful teachers.”
“It’s so hard for me to divorce the lessons I was taught at home from the lessons I learned at Shipley,” says Jamie. “Shipley influenced my parents, and my parents influenced Shipley. The things that we hold dear, Shipley influenced our family to hold dear, like inclusive and holistic education—that was in our house. It’s a framework for how we think about education, what we want for our own children in the future, what we believe it means to be a good person in the world, and what we feel matters in learning. My dad’s whole thing about ‘the process’ mattering the most—we all make fun of him for it, but we’ve all internalized it. And Shipley is the embodiment of that ethos. It’s more than a saying—it’s a way of living and one that my siblings and I struggle to practice in our lives. Our parents have had to remind us that there are more important things than the outcome. It doesn’t matter what result you get if you did it the wrong way. Did my dad learn that from Shipley? Or did Shipley learn that from my dad? Probably both.”
Love of Learning
The more the Piltch family speaks of Shipley, the more it becomes apparent that their Shipley story is a love story. A love of family, a love of school, and a love of learning.
“I have always loved Shipley,” professes Ali. “I love being in the classroom. I learned that at Shipley. In fact, Shipley’s ability to instill a love of learning in people is really incredible. I think Shipley helped me become my own, independent person.”
“I feel more grateful now than ever before,” shares Jamie. “I love reading and learning and writing. I got that from Shipley. Shipley teaches that exceptionally well, and now that I’m working, those things feel more salient in my life than ever before.”
“Shipley appreciates kids as individuals,” says Steve. “We’ve gotten to see that with our three. They learn very differently, and each of them seemed to find two or three teachers who really appreciated them and helped nurture them to become better students and better people. That, to me, is the essence of the School.”
“My teachers were extraordinary,” says Matt. “Many stand out. Mrs. Van Horn’s fourth grade class was amazing. They put me in her class to, well, toughen me up a little – because I was just a bit of a crier in third grade. In Kirsten Small’s seventh grade class, I must have rewritten the To Kill a Mockingbird paper seven times in pursuit of a perfect grade, which she never gave me. And in high school, Margaret Ralph taught me how to be a writer and a thinker in a real way for the first time.”
Jamie is grateful for the guidance and lessons Janet Kobosky, Josh Berberian, and Emily Pickering taught him about how to challenge himself.
In seventh grade, Mr. Schumacher (lovingly referred to as Mr. Schu by Ali) only let Ali raise her hand for three questions each class period, forcing her to consolidate her thoughts and learn to think more critically. Ali laughs at the memory. “And Ms. Weigel changed my life,” she says. “She was my economics teacher when I was a senior, and I became an Economics and Psychology major at Williams.”
The Hard Things
Life was not always easy in the Piltch house, however. Each family member has faced personal challenges, and within the community, the Piltches felt the pain of other families as they struggled.
“We had a lot of freaky health issues,” says Steve, of his family. Jamie had health complications prompting him to miss months of high school. Matt broke his leg in middle school and fractured his skull as a senior. And Ali spent her 16th birthday in a complicated jaw surgery.
Sunny, diagnosed with breast cancer, sought refuge in the comforting routine of teaching, the curiosity of her students, and the kindness of the community. “When I had breast cancer and was sick and scared, I would come to school with my Zofran in my pocket. And the students were great. They really are willing to learn and willing to work with you.”
Over 27 years, many Shipley families have experienced sadness or hardship.
“The people define this place,” says Steve. “And while it’s easiest and most fun to be in the role of Head when things are going well, probably the most important time is when things are challenging.”
“We all know that all good things come to an end,” says Sunny. “It’s hard. There’s no question about that. But for me, there’s so much good to take away—I know from the learning I’ve done here, that we’ll do well as a family in the next place.”
“They didn’t consult us on this,” jokes Ali. Though she’s fully supportive of her parents’ decision, she’s having a hard time processing the enormity of the change. “I am feeling quite sentimental. Leaving the house is really hard for me,” she admits.
Matt agrees. “We’re leaving the only home we’ve ever known. It’s going to be really weird to visit Philadelphia and not come out to Bryn Mawr. It will be a complete change of direction from anything I’ve ever known. I, personally, am not ready. I’d like them to stay in the house for another 10 or 15 years.”
“It’s been extraordinary,” says Steve, rivaling Ali as the most sentimental of the family. “When we arrived here, I don’t think we could have possibly envisioned 27 years. I ask myself, ‘Why did we decide now?’ It just seemed right for us and for the School with the 125th anniversary. I’m looking forward to seeing where Shipley goes in the next generation. It’s been a privilege; it’s been fabulous. We are very lucky.”
“A lot of people don’t have the privilege of living in one place for 27 years,” says Jamie. “We’ve had so much stability. The flip side is that this move feels huge. At the same time, I am happy that my parents will get to try something new. It’s great for them and it’s great for the School. It’s a good time for new leadership. As my dad says about sports, it is better to walk away a year too soon rather than a year too late.”
And so as the school year winds down, and the Piltch tenure comes to a close, both Steve and Sunny reflect. “I’m a lucky person,” say Sunny. “I love Shipley now as much as I did when I started. When I came here, I was 33. What did I know? I knew nothing. I got to learn to be a parent in this community. I got to teach in this community. I was sick in this community, and I buried my parents in this community. Personally and professionally, I grew up here and for that I am very, very appreciative.”
“I’m grateful for all of it,” adds Steve. “To have the privilege to work where the kids can be who they are, to work with parents and colleagues and a board of trustees who really do want to ask the question, ‘What’s best for the kids,’ and to pursue it together is truly special. Shipley’s been a great place from the first day we arrived here. It has provided us with remarkable opportunities both professionally and personally; it has given us a place to live, love, learn, and grow. It has given us a home. When you feel as we do, and see how the School has shaped our kids’ lives, how could we want for more?”