The Grayson School offers a rare startup in gifted learning

Melissa Bilash, founder and co-director, stands in the hallway at The Grayson School in Broomall. The private school is designed for gifted learners.

In the world of start-ups, failure is something most try to avoid. Yet Melissa Bilash considers it a measure of success - for her students, that is.

The Grayson School, in Broomall, is Pennsylvania's only independent, nonprofit day school designed for gifted learners.

Such students are accustomed to excelling and to praise, said Bilash, Grayson's founder. Often, that comes from spending years under-challenged in public school, where students at different levels of academic proficiency share classes and gifted kids frequently start the school year already knowing 50 percent of what will be taught, she said.

At Grayson, a primary goal is to get "perfectionists to take risks, admit failure, and [assess] how they recovered," Bilash said. "We really had to work hard on failure."

There's even "Failure Day," when, for instance, a missing semicolon in a line of code is celebrated as evidence of human fallibility and an opportunity for problem-solving.

This week, though, the focus is on accomplishment: the school's selection as one of 20 finalists in the inaugural Stellar StartUps competition sponsored by the parent company of the Inquirer, Daily News, and Philly.com.

Winners will be announced Thursday night at the new Pennovation Center in West Philadelphia after a cocktail reception and panel discussion by some of the region's entrepreneurial standouts.

In selecting Grayson as a finalist in the category of women/minority entrepreneurs, the judges considered its individualized instruction (with an 8:1 student-to-teacher ratio) and program development guided by internationally recognized researchers in gifted education, among other things.

Now in its second academic year, the Grayson School has 27 students in grades K through 6, up from 12 students last year, Bilash said. Base tuition is $25,348. Total enrollment is likely to grow next year, now that the state has approved the school's license application for grades 7 and 8. The ultimate plan is to accept students in grades pre-K through 12.

The only school of its kind in a 100-mile radius (the closest are in North Jersey and Bethesda, Md.), and one of about 80 nationwide, Grayson has attracted students from as far east as South Jersey and as far west as Lancaster.

Though it's not your garden-variety start-up - not a software developer, gadget creator, or health-sciences researcher - the Grayson School is like many new businesses in that its resources are tight. As a result, it's sharing space for now in the Greek school behind St. Luke Greek Orthodox Church on North Malin Road.

Grayson probably will have its own school building in two to four years, said Bilash, who wants to increase enrollment to a maximum of 200 students.

She would not disclose finances, saying that information is being prepared for the nonprofit school's Form 990 tax return and will be filed by the end of the year.

"We are a new school relying primarily on tuition and tax-deductible donations," Bilash said.

At 43, the mother of two from Delaware County is not new to entrepreneurship. It was through her 12-year-old education-consulting practice that she noticed a nationwide lack of state support for public school gifted programs.

Networking with others drove her to the monumental decision on her 40th birthday to try to start a school for gifted students.

"It took seven women with full-time jobs three years to do this," she said. "Not one person was paid. Not one person planned to have a child attend. These women just poured in for pure altruism. That's why we're here."

The licensing process was "very intense, as it should be," Bilash said. The application was more than 1,100 pages and weighed 26.8 pounds.

Among the requirements: literally having a school ready (a building under lease), with all curriculum written and all teaching materials purchased and in place - even the frozen frogs and the scalpels that would be used to dissect them, and, in the library, 1,000 books per grade level.

"It's difficult to fund-raise for your imaginary school which is probably going to get a license from the Department of Education," Bilash recalled of that cart-before-the-horse period.

The license was approved in June 2015, just two months before the start of Grayson's first school year.

Lesly and Marc Merlin of Newtown Square enrolled their 11-year-old daughter, Sydney, in the sixth grade at Grayson this year.

"Her second day coming home, she gets off the bus and she was Chatty Cathy, I just could not shut her up. That has never been my experience with my child," Lesly Merlin said, quick to praise the elementary school in the Marple Newtown School District her daughter had attended until now. It just couldn't provide the individualized instruction Grayson does, she said.

"To see your child, knowing that they had so much more to give, and to see them not be able to fully appreciate their skills was just kind of sad to watch," Merlin said. "I am just seeing a completely different kid."

dmastrull@phillynews.com

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@dmastrull