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WNY’s tiny schools attract those dissatisfied with traditional education

One school trumpets its rigorous classical education, with heavy doses of philosophy, Latin and theology, all centered on the Catholic faith.

Another school boasts an unheard-of ratio of fewer than two students for every teacher, with one-on-one instruction between student and teacher.

And the third school starts each day with an all-school meeting, where students and teachers talk about the issues of the day and help plan their daily class schedule.

They are three of the area’s smallest schools: Chesterton Academy of Buffalo, the Buffalo Academy of Scholars and the Mandala School in East Aurora.

Together, the three schools have a total of only 76 students – or the equivalent of three classrooms in a typical public school. And they have a combined student-teacher ratio of about 3.5 to 1.

These relatively new schools all celebrate their smaller classes, individual attention to each student and more personal relationships throughout the school. And they all reflect some level of parents’ dissatisfaction with traditional public, private and Catholic education.

All three are private, independent schools licensed or chartered by the state of New York, but they’re not charter schools.

They’re all pretty expensive, and each has a different mission.

Chesterton, with a set curriculum for each high school grade, has a more traditional feel; boys wear ties, and the girls wear uniform skirts inside a classroom setting that could be found in any school.

Academy of Scholars and Mandala School seem much more informal, with some kids walking around in socks and sitting on comfortable bean-bag chairs or couches. Students in the two schools work in small groups, including one-on-one instruction at Academy of Scholars, varying sizes of small groups at Mandala and plenty of independent study inside both.

These schools all test their kids, frequently, but they don’t leave their teachers swamped with bureaucratic paperwork.

Instead, the founders say the teachers can focus on helping their kids learn, whatever their abilities. Both Mandala and the Academy of Scholars offer novel-writing help and frequent field trips for all students.

Lois Weis, distinguished professor in the University at Buffalo Graduate School of Education, wasn’t surprised to hear about these tiny schools.

“Schooling right now really is a marketplace for those who can afford it,” she said. “It always has been, but it’s become an enhanced marketplace. There are many more options for parents.”

Parents who could afford it already had several choices: public school, Catholic school, private school or home-schooling.

“Many of these smaller schools are offering yet another option for parents,” Weis said. “They’re just not happy with what they see out there for their own children.”

Chesterton Academy came into being after its founder, Deacon Michael P. McKeating, a former Erie County deputy county executive, spotted some American-sounding kids playing soccer during his pilgrimage to Rome three years ago. They were from the Chesterton Academy near Minneapolis, which was just starting to replicate its model in other cities. ¶ Mandala’s John E. Newton retired from more traditional teaching in 2008, after 28 years in public education. That’s when he decided to start his own school, to follow his dream of a more healthy, humanistic learning environment for kids. ¶ And the executive director of the Academy of Scholars, Margaret Keller-Cogan, lost her job as head of the elite Elmwood Franklin School in 2013. Some of the new school’s enrollment and financial support comes from families that had supported Keller-Cogan during a contentious time in her one-plus year at Elmwood Franklin. ¶ All three founders teach at their schools.

Buffalo Academy of Scholars

No after-school homework.

A school set inside an old Delaware Avenue mansion, with comfortable furniture and “classrooms” carved out of former law-firm offices.

And a class size of one.

That’s the Buffalo Academy of Scholars.

“It’s almost like a one-room schoolhouse experience,” said Keller-Cogan, the executive director.

Of course, that experience comes with a hefty price tag – an annual tuition of $21,000, although some students are on full or partial scholarship.

The daily schedule is no cakewalk.

Each student has three 50-minute classes per day, one on one. That’s 50 minutes of a teacher’s undivided attention, with no place to hide.

“You can’t opt out here,” Keller-Cogan said. “You must engage, because you’re the only one in the room.”

The Buffalo Academy of Scholars, in its second full year, advertises itself as a “boutique educational program,” designed for students and families who believe the traditional classroom model doesn’t work for them.

The student body, which isn’t grouped by grade level, is broken into three fairly equal groups: kids who perform considerably above their age level, those at or slightly above and those behind in one or more subjects.

“Interestingly, no student is at the same (grade) level for every subject area,” Keller-Cogan said.

On a recent visit, sophomore Max Sullivan was learning about the American Revolution with teacher Autumn Magliocca.

“I used to sit in the back of the class, and I wouldn’t raise my hand,” said Max, who previously attended a local Catholic school. “Here it’s one on one, so you can ask the teacher anything.”

The teachers also benefit, from focusing on each student’s individual learning style, whether it’s through seeing, listening, hands-on work or reading and writing.

“You get to know your students on a personal level,” Magliocca said. “You learn their nuances and what makes them unique as a learner. You can cater the curriculum to their level.”

Ethan Spicer, 13, who would be in seventh grade, was sitting on a couch with his laptop, composing math crossword puzzles, as he talked about what’s different in his school. He’s not distracted by other students, and he doesn’t have to raise his hand when he has a question.

“It definitely brings up your speed in learning,” he said. “You’re able to ask all the questions you need. And I feel like I have to work harder here, because I owe that to my teachers.”

At her former school, 12-year-old Samantha Ritter didn’t ask questions in class, fearful she would ask a dumb one.

“Since there’s no one else in the room here, I can ask the teacher, and the teacher won’t care. So it’s ask away.”

As a tiny school with such a low student-teacher ratio, the Academy of Scholars offers perks not found in larger schools:

• At the end of each 50-minute class, the teacher posts a brief update on the student’s progress, available for parents to see on a parent portal.

• Teachers spend more time comparing notes, sharing successful learning strategies for any student.

• And every student writes a novel, anywhere from 4,000 to 40,000 words each.

Chesterton Academy

The subject, philosophy, can’t be found in a typical class for high school freshmen.

Students are discussing the battle between ancient philosophers Socrates and Callicles, including their rival definitions of being a “superior” individual.

“So how does Socrates counter Callicles’ statement?” teacher Justyna Braun asks her nine students. “How does Socrates redefine what it means to be superior?”

“Doesn’t he say that the superior man is the one who has self-control?” student Peter Musilli answers.

“Bingo,” Braun replies.

This is rigorous material for high school freshmen. Braun gently prods her students, peppering them with questions about the material, dwelling on concepts like justice and suffering and happiness.

“Quite possibly, the just man will suffer, but remember, suffering and unhappiness aren’t the same thing,” Braun says. “Socrates knows very well that he will be condemned at some point, but he’s not going to stop living a just life. (That) will make him happy in this life and the next.”

This is the essence of Chesterton Academy: the teaching of philosophy and other classic subjects, all wrapped around a Catholic experience.

While the academic material is challenging, eight teachers work with just 37 students. That ratio meshes well with the school’s Socratic method of teaching, focusing on dialogue between instructor and learner.

“The kids are very comfortable discussing things and challenging the teacher,” headmaster McKeating said. “The teacher is supposed to stimulate the discussion, and they do.”

Students say it elevates their thinking.

“The teachers are more engaged with us, I think, and they treat us more like mature people, almost like adults,” freshman Simon Randle said.

Chesterton Academy, independent of the Diocese of Buffalo, is named after the English writer and theologian G.K. Chesterton. Students take four years each of seven main subjects: literature (not English), history (not social studies), philosophy, math, science, theology and Latin or Spanish.

“We say that all knowledge is interrelated, and we want kids to see how they’re interrelated,” McKeating said.

For example, he said, the logic of math is seen in philosophy, and God’s handiwork is seen in the sciences.

Catholicism is a huge part of both the curriculum and each school day, which starts with 8 a.m. Mass. About two-thirds of the students were home-schooled earlier.

“We knew our market was going to be people who home-schooled for elementary school, but were looking for something more formal in high school,” McKeating explained.

Sophomores Anna Grande and Mary Tremblay sat down with a visitor for a mini-lesson on the Plato-Aristotle philosophies before discussing the values and atmosphere of the school, located inside the former Fourteen Holy Helpers School in West Seneca.

“The basis of the curriculum is Catholicism,” Anna said. “They want us to look at all of our subjects through the lens of Catholicism.”

Both girls talked about the advantages of their small school, with class sizes ranging from three to 16. “We do see ourselves as like a big family,” Anna said.

“There’s less drama than other schools, but we’re still a school full of teenagers, so there’s going to be some drama,” Mary said, as both girls laughed.

The goals of the school, now in its second year, are clear.

“We’re not trying to turn out doctors, lawyers or engineers,” McKeating said. ”We’re trying to turn out good citizens who have broad, generalized knowledge and can discuss anything.”

Mandala School

It’s just after 8:30 a.m. on a Monday, the beginning of the school week.

Sixteen students and three teachers at the Mandala School meet in the living room of their 192-year-old schoolhouse, scattered on couches, chairs and stools. It’s the daily all-school meeting.

Newton stands up in one corner of the room. The man they call “Dr. John” may be presiding, but this is more like a town meeting than an address by the school’s founder and director.

“How many of you watched the Super Bowl?” he asks.

That ignites a free-flowing discussion about the halftime show, the commercials and the Denver Broncos’ defense.

Students then guide the discussion, talking about their first childhood memories, what they’re going to read after The Odyssey, whether they’re going to break into small groups to read fairy tales and when they’re going to study other topics.

Newton and his two other teachers set the curriculum, but students have a huge say in the timing and process.

“I really believe in democracy,” he said. “It’s listening to everybody, understanding other points of view. That’s why we have a morning meeting. We want everybody to experience civil discourse. I guess I’m really optimistic that when people come together, they can come up with a solution.”

Later in the meeting, Newton mentions the upcoming Mardi Gras. Students come up with the French translation, “Fat Tuesday,” before Newton stumps them with another term for that celebration: Carnival, from the Latin words “carne” (meat) and “vale” (goodbye).

“So it’s, ‘Goodbye, meat,’ ” Newton says, leading to a spirited discussion about wearing beads and dressing up as hippies.

At the Mandala School, kids have a lot of input into how and what they learn.

After the morning meeting, the entire school meets again for a lab, where the topic is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. Students work in assigned pairs, including a 14-year-old with a 5-year-old, to measure, in centimeters and millimeters, the circumference and diameter of every-day circles, like tops of cans, wastebasket bottoms and trivets.

When the group reassembles, students read off the circumference-diameter ratios they found, most zeroing in on ratios between 3 and 3.33. Newton then talks about “pi,” approximately 3.14.

“It’s one of the coolest things in the universe,” Newton tells the students. “Every perfect circle has the same ratio of the circumference to the diameter. It’s not something that people invented. It just exists.”

The formula, C = Pi x D, took a back seat to the lesson these students learned. Any student asked in the future about the ratio probably will remember measuring wastebasket bottoms.

“We really get to know each child individually,” teacher April Bastine said. “It’s difficult for me to tell you what grade level they’re in. That’s just not how we think of them. We think of where they are, and where we want them to be.”

Students appreciate the smaller social groups, the individual attention, the freedom and the informal learning style.

“I don’t like sitting in a desk,” said 10-year-old Charlie Benfanti. “You can’t get up, and they write on a chalkboard. Here it’s more hands-on.”

Merrick Throm, 14, pointed out that Mandala School is not for every student, that “Dr. John” wants students to be assertive and do things on their own.

“It’s independent learning, more or less,” she said. “You have to be that kind of person.”

Newton explained one of the key goals, to make the kids feel curious and confident in their school setting.

“We want to prepare them for high school, but it’s not just about academics. It’s about individual mental health. Do they feel confident about themselves? Do they feel they belong?”