Sierra Canyon School: Majestic Beauty Illuminates Illustrious Tradition

Entrance to Sierra Canyon


Take a beautiful campus, a multi-generational connection to one of the visionary founding families and an unyielding focus on academic and athletic prowess and the result is Sierra Canyon, an Early Kindergarten-12th school on two campuses in Chatsworth. I’ve wanted to see the school for several years so I was super-excited when Kendall Pillsbury, Sierra Canyon’s admissions director, invited me to tour the school and have brunch from the delicious Brent’s Deli.


Campus view!
Campus view!


Arriving at Sierra Canyon requires a short drive along a rural road to the entrance of the lower school, which is extremely private, sitting on 17 acres of classrooms, outdoor play areas and sports fields. The campus is a palette of earth tone, greenery dotted with one-story brown-hued buildings.  The school is currently undergoing a renovation of one of its outdoor spaces and has completed the first phase of its athletic field expansion


On a bright, cold morning, I spent about more than an hour talking with three top administrators and touring the school. Sipping coffee with Kendall, Adam Horitz, dean of students and Kristine Theodoratos, lower school director, gave me a thorough sense of the school’s history, philosophy and plans for the future. This is a traditional academic school with an energetic, upbeat ambience tucked away on secluded, spacious grounds.


SC Classrooms
One story-classroom and learning buildings give the school a rustic feel


Sierra Canyon has some of the L.A’s most experienced educators on its staff Head of School, Jim Skrumbis previously spent 10 years at Marlborough School, as a dean and head of the upper school.  Although I didn’t meet Jim, I learned he has an impressive background (he’s also coached sports and taught history) and the big picture vision to lead the school into the future.


Kendall is a warm, bubbly Texan, the mom of three Sierra Canyon students. She’s super-easy to talk to and tries to make the admissions process as accessible and un-intimidating as possible for families.


State of Nature: The garden
State of Nature: The garden


Sierra Canyon is steeped in family tradition. Adam Horwitz is the connection between the school’s past, present and future. His father (currently a board member) is one of the school’s founding families. Adam, a graduate of the school, is the dean of students and also a father of two Sierra Canyon students. He has been at Sierra Canyon since the beginning, literally (the school opened in 1978). Adam is a genuine, outgoing and dynamic guy who is truly a huge part of the heart and soul of this community school. He is steeped in the school’s history and cares about its roots and future. Keenly attuned to student life, Adam knows all the kids and cares deeply about them.


Kristine Theodoratos, who hails from Turing Point School, is the lower school director and also the mom of two Sierra Canyon students. An experienced educator with a calm, friendly demeanor, she discussed the school’s academic approach within the kindergarten and lower school. Sierra Canyon, she explained is a traditional school with a developmental twist. Beginning in kindergarten, the school utilizes what it calls “Like Learner Groups.” These include: On Grade, On Grade Enriched and Above Grade. These groups are fluid and kids may move between the groups within a school year, depending on their needs. There is also a gifted teaching specialist who pulls out highly gifted kids for math. Starting next year, the kids will wear uniforms. Sierra Canyon utilizes the well-known “Character Counts” program, which ties directly into the school’s theme, Excellence Is Its Own Reward.


A kindergarten classroom
A kindergarten classroom
Get ready for kindergarten!
Get ready for kindergarten!


Sierra Canyon’s educators are both in their comfort zone and always looking for new ways to innovate, whether its in the area of curriculum, technology, facilities or any aspect of the school.  Smart Boards and a computer lab comprise the basis for elementary school technology education.


Hitting a high note in the music room
Hitting a high note in the music room


Ethnic and socioeconomic diversity is another of the school’s assets (about 39 percent of the student body). And, I saw diversity among the faculty and staff too. Approximately 15 percent of the school’s budget is designated for financial aid. Families attending the school live in 95 different zip codes!


Field of Dreams
Field of Dreams
Rendering of athletic field renovation
Rendering of athletic field renovation


I was extremely impressed to learn that Head of School, Jim Skrumbis, accompanies upper school students on one of the Civil Rights tours in Alabama. This is the first school I’ve encountered that takes this trip. When my kids are older, we plan to visit this take this same trip.


Sierra Canyon’s high school is 5 years old and on a separate campus. It has already distinguished itself with college acceptances to a variety of top schools including, Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Northwestern, Yale and this year an Early Decision to Harvard for one student.




Sierra Canyon takes its cues from its understated past and blends that legacy with a 21st century focus on academic excellence, diversity and sports. The pristine beauty of the school is a nostalgic reminder of a time when kids could be kids. It’s a place you want to linger and explore. And that’s exactly what the students at Sierra Canyon do!


Art studio
Art studio!


I was excited to see Sierra Canyon and to offer it a chance to take a solo turn in the spotlight on this blog!


One last, lingering look...

For more information, please visit,


Pilgrim School: Watch Out World!

Welcome to Pilgrim School!

Update: Mark Brooks is no longer head of school at Pilgrim. He is now head of The Center For Early Education. As of July 1, 2017, Pilgrim’s new head of school will be Paul Barsky. 

My first introduction to the Pilgrim School was during my job as a senior legislative staffer for L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas (then a City Councilman and former Pilgrim dad). I hired an intern who was a Stanford freshman and a Pilgrim alumni. R. turned out to be one of the most gifted writers I’d ever worked with. R. stunned me when she turned in her first assignment. She had the writing and analytic skills of someone with far more experience. And, she was awesome to work with. Professional beyond her years, she came back to intern with us for a second summer before completing her degree. I was thrilled (but not surprised) to learn she now has a high-level job at Stanford.


Pulling into the Pilgrim School parking lot on a recent morning, I was awed by the beautiful main building. It is majestic, set back off the street, serving as a wonderful welcome to the school. The Pilgrim campus sets the tone for its location in the Wilshire Circle neighborhood, just east of Hancock Park. In the midst of a bustling, vibrant area, the campus is pretty and spacious, offering a location that is accessible to families from Hancock Park, Silverlake, Koreatown, Los Feliz, Downtown, West Adams and Mid-Wilshire. It is, “A city school,” says Pilgrim.


A view from the front of the campus


Patricia Kong is the vivacious, friendly admissions director and mom of a Pilgrim preschooler. She introduced me to Dr. Mark Brooks, head of school, and we sat down in his office to talk about the school. Dr. Brooks (Mark) is a powerhouse of intellect and personality, a true tour-de-force. He’s an outgoing, charismatic former law partner who became Pilgrim’s head of school eight years ago. Sitting in Mark’s office we chatted about Pilgrim and the world of L.A. private schools. Mark’s legal background serves the school well. As he puts it, his former job was one where, “People returned my calls right away.” His well-connected gravitas, along with that of the school’s board of directors, has meant that Pilgrim is a mix of both very affluent and celebrity families and those who receive financial aid. Mark has fundraised voraciously to bring new resources to the school, including its newest pride and joy, the Brown Family Fine Arts Center.


Dr. Brooks’ story time with kids (Source: Pilgrim)


Being around Mark is like having coffee with an old friend. His laughter is infectious and the conversation flows easily from topic to topic. He wears many hats, including as a dad of a former Pilgrim student. Pilgrim truly reflects the ethnic and socio-economic diversity of Los Angeles. Taking about Pilgrim, it is evident that Mark is a master at understanding what a widely diverse group of kids need.  His commitment to the kids in his charge speaks volumes. As he told me, “Some of our kids won’t begin their careers with the connections to open doors and will need to cold-call throughout their lives. It is my job to ensure they are prepared academically and socially for that challenge.” This is a profound statement because it demonstrates an understanding of how the world of work operates and what it takes to achieve career success.  Mark’s commitment to the kids’ success in life speaks volumes about his real-world experience as a lawyer and he’s putting those skills to work on behalf of Pilgrim students.


Get ready for Kindergarten!
Kindergarten classroom interior


The Kindergarten program is a melding of learning and fun…of tradition and creativity. The elementary program offers writing, math, sports, music, the arts, technology and science. Beginning in fourth grade, students take field trips to Catalina, Joshua Tree, Yosemite and of course, the school’s 270 acre camp in Big Bear at Cedar Lake. Key aspects of the elementary program include learning, empathy, social awareness and fostering a sense of belonging. Community service—a wide variety of meaningful school and student initiated programs—are a graduation requirement and begin in elementary school.


Pilgrim is a traditional school with a commitment to educating the whole child. Technology (ipads, Smartboards, electronic textbooks and laptops) play as important a role as the arts. The school has a Visiting Artists and Writers Program where highly acclaimed authors like Lisa See, Erick Larson and Jane Smiley are among many who have spent time at the school leading discussions with the kids and faculty.


Let’s read!


A certain intellectualism defines the school’s culture. Lacking snobbery, this culture makes it cool to be smart and well read. Never precious or contrived, the school creates a cool-kid college prep environment with a touch of warmth and just the right amount of casualness.


Founded in 1958, the current day Pilgrim is the embodiment of Mark’s hard work and his remarkable personal qualities. He does it all with his signature mix of intelligence, humor and skillful relationship building. Whether it is recruiting top teachers or working with students and faculty to achieve the school’s 100 percent college acceptance rate, Mark and his team have created a learning environment that evokes an atmosphere of serious study within a small, community oriented school. Both modern and traditional, Pilgrim transcends hype and instead focuses on the big picture, which is to offer a solid foundation in academics and a strong moral code within a mildly religious school (Pilgrim was founded by the First Congregational Church in L.A.) Once a month, students K-12th grade attend chapel to focus on topics ranging from patience to gratitude.


Musical notes…


Music is an important part of the curriculum. The day I visited, as Patricia showed me the 2nd floor, the sound of exquisite music filled the room. She explained that the upper school student who was playing the organ had received requests to teach other students the instrument (which requires a high degree of difficulty) and had agreed to help them learn to play the organ.


Less is more at Pilgrim, except when it comes to the new Fine Arts Center! There, more is more and that’s a good thing. The enormous, light-filled space is a place where students learn and create: painting, sculpture, visual arts and ceramics, among other artistic endeavors.


Brown Family Fine Arts Center (Source: Pilgrim)
Created by students
Student art decorates a hallway


There are 140 students in the elementary school, providing small classes and a student/teacher ratio of 11:1. The average class size is 12 students.


The gym


Pilgrim School is a vibrant, inspiring school that is small in size and rich in human and educational resources. With support from The Ahmanson Foundation and The E.E. Ford Foundation among other sources, the school is able to offer significant financial aid and scholarships.  It is both traditional and spirited, a warm and wonderful place to spend a morning with the indomitable Dr. Mark Brooks and his staff.


Pilgrim School is hosting an Open House for prospective families (preschool-12th) on Sat. Jan. 12, 2013 at 10 a.m. For more information, visit,