Published November 30, 2017
Visitors who enter what appears to be a typical suburban house in Clarence feel a calm energy, a protective barrier impermeable to outside hostilities. “Ophelia” by the Lumineers can be heard faintly from the next room. A stranger can walk in and feel at home.
But this is no home.
This is Roots of the Future, a Montessori school for children ages 2½ to 6 located at 8970 Main St. It was founded by UB alumna Anna Liuzzo, who left the public school arena to start Roots of the Future because of a core educational belief that all children learn differently and shouldn’t be held to the same standard.
“It’s like I’m a professional student,” says Liuzzo, who earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology, a master’s degree in elementary education and a PhD in science education, all from UB. She also served as an adjunct faculty at UB during the 12 years she taught at Lewiston-Porter Middle School.
At Roots of the Future, Liuzzo has created a learning environment that is different from traditional schools. Her focus on the complete development of her students has made Roots of the Future a popular preschool within the local community and has earned the admiration of prominent UB education professors.
“In the current context of education, parents are looking for a wide range of options for their preschool children,” says Randy Yerrick, professor and associate dean for interprofessional education and engagement in the Graduate School of Education. “A Montessori school offers a rich experience for children educationally, while honoring their identities, their interests and their developmental level.”
Liuzzo’s path to starting her own school began when she was working as a student teacher at Bennett Park Montessori in the Buffalo Public Schools while earning her UB master’s degree. She says she had never heard of a Montessori school at the time, and wasn’t sure how it differed from a traditional public school.
“I loved the way the philosophy was, how the children were learning, just the entire concept of it,” Liuzzo says.
The Montessori approach is based on the idea that children have an innate desire to learn and are best able to in a supportive and free-range environment. It focuses on each child as a whole, taking into account cognitive, emotional, physical and social development.
Liuzzo’s passion for the Montessori philosophy grew, but she was unsure if her educational background fit the bill.
She was certified to teach science, and her dissertation at UB was an analysis of STEM teaching contexts — a background uncharacteristic for an elementary school teacher since the curriculum for this age group is based around reading, writing and math. She knew this lowered her chances of landing a job at a Montessori school. She also didn’t kid herself about the cost of graduate school.
So she finished her master’s degree and put her newfound passion on hold. She accepted a job at Lewiston-Porter, but never lost sight of her vision.
“My heart stayed with Montessori,” Liuzzo says. “I always had it in the back of my mind.”
To work at a Montessori school, teachers usually go through a training program tailored to the unique Montessori teaching practices. Liuzzo knew she wanted to do the training, but with a full-time job, it was hard for her to find the time.
While teaching at Lewiston-Porter, Liuzzo left for a year to pursue her PhD. She saw this as an opportunity to start her Montessori training.
Her training reaffirmed her aspiration to teach with the Montessori philosophy. She already had implemented some Montessori ideas in her classroom, but public school couldn’t offer the same freedom as a school devoted to the concepts.
Liuzzo says she wanted the freedom to teach in her own way, consistent with the Montessori values. And she didn’t want to just work at a Montessori school: She wanted to start her own school.
While working on her PhD, she began to think about her future business and career as an educator. She and her husband, a chiropractor, bought a quaint suburban home and turned it into a workspace.
“That was my dream at the time,” Liuzzo recalls. “I knew at some point I wanted to open up a Montessori school, and he was going to have a satellite office in the same building.”
Every Montessori school has a different approach, and Liuzzo fell in love with the idea of a home as her school.
“Everybody has their own personality,” she notes. “This is how I saw beauty. Something about a place that looks so ‘homey’ and feels like home just felt right.”
It wasn’t long after Liuzzo and her husband bought the house that a local Montessori school closed. She saw an opportunity and purchased the school’s supplies.
By the time she finished her PhD, she had completed her Montessori training, had the proper school supplies and a space to make her dream a reality. She continued to work at Lewiston-Porter, but decided to leave when the state changed the curriculum and implemented increasingly rigid teaching methods.
“Things started to change,” Liuzzo says. “They had a very specific way of how they wanted things to be taught. It felt scripted.”
The Lewiston-Porter administration also implemented several benchmarks that students had to reach by specific dates within the school year. That didn’t make sense to Liuzzo.
“They’re all individuals, they’re all children, and they all have strengths in different areas,” she says. “They all learn in different ways.”
She left Lewiston-Porter in 2012 and started Roots of the Future that same year.
She started out with two students, but ended the year with five. The second year, she started with 10 students and added five more as the year progressed. Now in her sixth year, she has 28 students and a waiting list.
A typical day at Roots of the Future starts at 8:30 a.m. and ends 11:30 a.m. Rather than calling it a school day, Liuzzo likes to think of this time as an uninterrupted, three-hour work period.
“We are cautious about not interrupting their work because you never know what kind of connections they’re making as they’re doing their work,” Liuzzo says.
She allows the children to choose what they want to work on and when they want to work on it.
Every subject or concept is introduced through hands-on, play-based activities. Liuzzo doesn’t stop what the students are doing to teach something to the class as a whole. The idea is to allow the children to learn at their own pace.
“We are really focused on a child’s individuality and Independence,” which teaches them the concept of responsibility at a young age, says Liuzzo, adding that this ties into the practical life concept, a staple of Montessori schooling.
Liuzzo and her staff direct the children in the form of encouragement but don’t tell them what to do unless they realize a student has a particular weakness.
Since the children are allowed to work on what they want, they naturally may stay away from things they may not be as good at or familiar with. Liuzzo says a critical aspect of her job is to monitor students and assess their strengths and weaknesses.
“If a student is struggling with language, for example, we may go over and ask if they want to do a lesson that involves language,” she says.
Children typically follow that suggestion because to them, it’s just another game. They don’t realize it’s something they may be struggling with: It’s just a game they haven’t played as much, she explains.
“Our kids never get the feeling that, ‘Oh, that person can do this and I can’t.’”