Two Schools Focusing on Individualized Learning in the Greater Syracuse Area

Oct 28, 2019

Two students comfortably working on the floor at the New School in DeWitt.
Credit John Smith / WAER News

We recently gave you a look into how some Syracuse City Schools are implementing non-traditional programming after they were flagged for low performance by the state.  Now, we are taking a closer look at two alternative, private schools with unique curriculums.


There’s a private K - 8th elementary school in Syracuse that prides itself on being different. That’s the New School on Jamesville Road.  Their enrollment is barely big enough to fill a classroom in most local school districts … the entire school has only 21 students!  Administrator Tamara Breed explains how that makes a huge difference to learning.

“The teachers are so deeply involved with the children throughout the full day. They see them interacting, their learning is highly social, which is a great motivator too.”

Breed loves what she and her small team of teachers accomplish at the New School with an unusually small student ratio to teacher ratio.  Teachers are free to implement changes on an individual level as they see fit; something that can’t always happen in larger classroom settings.

New School students are working on some math problems and interacting with their teacher.
Credit John Smith / WAER News

“Our teachers have tremendous creativity, and they’re able to be completely responsive to changes that they observe or that a child brings to them.”

With a small number of students walking in the front door each day, Breed explains how easily they all can become friends.

“They are here in these small groups all the time.  Everybody does get to know everybody and become good friends, and even though, we have maybe a tiny number of children in each age group, they make friends across a wide range of ages.”

Students also have opportunities to learn from community members at the New School.

“Work study students from SU come in for support.  We have volunteers who come in to do projects or do reading with the little children, whatever it may be.”

Students get to decide to build their own daily and weekly schedules and they can dig deeper into learning about what intrigues them. 

The Montessori School of Syracuse campus.
Credit Montessori School of Syracuse

The Montessori School of Syracuse covers Pre-K through 6th grade and allows students to work either very independently or in groups to learn from each other and collaborate.  Current enrollment is 150 students.  Principal Mary Lawyer O’Connor says the school’s environment encourages self-discipline and the teacher plays a guiding role.

“So if you’re not as easy to pick up math concepts that’s okay, he or she will guide you through that curriculum until you complete it all, but you can take your time because it takes you longer to integrate those concepts.”

Lawyer O’Connor says a current student is excelling and taking college level math; so it all depends at which level of learning students are achieving.

“It is almost as if every child has an IEP, and individualized education plan, because each child can go through all the curriculum at their own rate.”

She takes us to a quaint cottage on campus where the school’s youngest learners are… three to six year-olds.  The room is arranged by curriculum...  language arts, mathematics and sensorial materials to interact with.

Students having a fun lesson on making apple cider, a CNY fall favorite.
Credit Montessori School of Syracuse

“You can see that everyone takes their work off the shelf and then returns it to the shelf when they completed the task they are working on.”

O’Connor says that kind of self-discipline by students raises a lot of eyebrows.

“Parents are shocked to see their kids do that, but I think children they have that ability we just get in the way of it.”

By the time students graduate from the Montessori School, she adds that students have superb communications and social emotional skills are developed to serve them well in middle school.  Lawyer O’Connor says older students also serve as role models to younger students as they see them working on advanced projects such as research papers.

Montessori and New School, two alternative education schools with some similarities and yet, very unique approaches to individualized learning and smaller student to teacher ratios.

Montessori School of Syracuse primary school cottage.
Credit Montessori School of Syracuse