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 Natural Awakenings Lancaster-Berks

The New School of Lancaster Promotes Independence, Forward Learning

Aug 01, 2015 12:14AM ● By Sheila Julson

Italian educator and physician Maria Montessori was ahead of her time when she said, “Free the child’s potential and you will transform him into the world.” Over 100 years later, Montessori schools—such as The New School of Lancaster—bear her teaching philosophies and foster that independence, nurturing a child’s natural ability to think and learn.

The New School was opened in September 1990 by a group of dedicated parents and teachers who sought to create a Montessori school that closely matched their personalities and leadership ideas, says Mary Cae Williams, head of school. The school, celebrating 25 years this year, is licensed by the Pennsylvania Department of Education and accredited through the American Montessori Society.

Montessori education groups kids into grade ranges, rather than one grade level per class. A room of first, second and third graders together fosters a family setting and allows older kids to help the younger ones, thus strengthening responsibility and enforcing a Montessori principle that school should feel like a home away from home.

Instead of using the term “classroom”, The New School calls the learning rooms “environments”—each structured for the child’s level with smaller furniture and easy accessibility to learning materials on the shelves. “Maria Montessori’s whole philosophy was based on how the child is looking at things, how the child is responding to things and how the child is desiring to know, and to provide the materials and the environment that will best suit them to learn with the least amount of stress, pressure or negativity,” explains Williams.

In early grades, concrete materials such as puzzles and counting discs are used to help the children visualize what they’re learning, before moving on to abstract lessons on paper. Children craft lessons through visual means such as dioramas, or by creating a dust jacket with artwork and a blurb that conveys a book’s topic.

The Montessori system is not a competitive model of learning, but instead a harmonious environment in which all are encouraged to work together. Williams says The New School doesn’t believe in punishment or praise, but rather in acknowledging the value of something positive a child has done. “Dr. Montessori recognized the danger of too much praise and how it takes away from the child the accomplishment of what he or she has done. Then it just becomes about self-satisfaction,” notes Williams.

If a child makes a mistake, Williams says the teacher will perform a targeted intervention. “The goal is to say, ‘Show me what you’re doing here and how you got that answer,’” explains Williams. “We’re assessing their success, but the purpose is not to find out what they don’t know, but what they do know.”

Arts and culture are strong components of Montessori education, and The New School thrives in those areas. Williams praises art educator Gwen Eberly, who has developed projects that help bring out students’ individuality through the use of different techniques, materials, design principles and color palates.

Spanish is introduced to children at age 3, and beginning in first grade, students are exposed to it every day. “By seventh grade, they are fluent, so Spanish teacher Jenny Miller takes them to Spanish-speaking restaurants so they can interact with the community and order their food,” says Williams. “They also present performances for the Spanish American Civic Association.”

Parental involvement is high at The New School, and many parents volunteer to help with reading, assist with fundraisers, weed the garden area or share their hobbies with the students. Williams says she often hears parents comment on how well-rounded and confident their kids are after they leave The New School. “They leave with deep relationships and make connections with classmates that last for a long time,” she says. “They’re thoughtful about what life presents to them.”

The New School of Lancaster is located at 935 Columbia Ave., in Lancaster. For more information, call 717-397-7655 or visit

Sheila Julson is a Milwaukee-area freelance writer and contributor to Natural Awakenings magazines throughout the country.

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