Liberty without learning is always in peril and learning without liberty is always in vain – John F. Kennedy

A new democratic school movement is afoot in Buffalo these days, led by Dr. John Newton, a co-founder of Buffalo’s newly-formed Learning Choices Network (LCN), and founder of Mandala School in East Aurora.

Always innovative, Dr. John’s work with students has included one of the first internet projects, an AT&T Learning Circle in the 1980’s featured around the world; an environmental project on zebra mussels that resulted in a United Nations presentation and a spot on Japanese television; and the creation of the Great Lakes Student Summit. In response to finding a need for experiential learning in the education of his own three children, Dr. John and his wife Claudia helped to launch Explore & More Children’s Museum, which recently relocated to Buffalo from East Aurora.


A standard scene at Explore & More Children’s Museum

He is now helping to bring LCN’s mission to life by creating, facilitating, and promoting alternative opportunities for authentic learning in Buffalo. His 40 years of experience as an educator inform many of the group’s approaches to programming, including the upcoming Best of Buffalo Urban Immersion summer program taking place August 11th-17th.

Here, Dr. John provides more insight into how his own family and educational experiences have inspired the work he does today, and the kind of learning opportunities LCN seeks to provide for Buffalo’s youth.

What sets Mandala apart in terms of structure?

We experiment with many different strategies to promote intrinsic motivation. Research confirms that when individuals choose to do something and pursue it with interest, they will create better products, be more satisfied, and be more likely to continue with their efforts.

When students listen to another student’s story, take part in the discussion, and feel the pride of accomplishment, they are more likely to write. As they receive satisfaction from peers and themselves, the writing continues and improves.

At Mandala we have an incredible culture of writing. Some have worked at novels over several months while others write deep, powerful poetry almost every day. This, in turn, encourages more reading. We find our students being more selective about the books they read and more confident in critiquing published authors. They know good writing. As they share the books they read, other students become interested and the general quality of books being read increases.

Structure in science is also a mix of specific lessons and individual pursuits. More than any other subject, science is often the source of our morning discussions. Someone will have a topic they are wondering about so we all discuss it.

Mandala students making soap

Mandala students making soap

Beyond specific activities and programs, what types of experiences do you provide/would you want to provide for your kids?

At Mandala School we provide easy access among children and grownups so everybody can get the help they need when they need it. By providing individual attention, students can move at the pace and level they need. We have been very successful in helping children learn effectively and efficiently so they have time to pursue their own interests while still learning the skills needed to succeed in high school and life.

Students sketch at Knox Farm State Park

Students sketch at Knox Farm State Park

With so many debates going on about the future of public education, how does an experienced educator like yourself approach the civic education of your own children?

There’s always that hope that they will do good things for others. We want them to be satisfied and really into whatever they choose to do.

How do you feel the world has changed since you were the age of your children?

As a kid I played outside most of the time without the supervision of grownups. Sometimes I was by myself wandering in the woods or playing in a small stream. Other times I was with lots of friends playing baseball, football, “Army”, or building a fort. We don’t trust kids as much and, consequently, they are less self-assured. We live in a culture of fear now. In my 20s I was able to find a job and have a reasonable sense that a career awaited. Not true now. Of course, the biggest change is technology with its access to information and ability to communicate. That makes us more socially connected in some ways but less humanly connected in other ways. We now spend less time on ideas; we prefer quick visuals or captions instead of reading full articles or books.

How do you see your own family experience impacting how you see your role as a citizen, a voter, a community member?

We are all in this together. What I want for my children is what I want for the world.


The Newtons

The Newtons

Share a liberating learning experience with your kids this summer! Check out LCN’s Best of Buffalo Urban Immersion. This summer pilot program is designed to energize the spirits of young people, ages 12-18, by involving them in the Western New York community through hands-on-learning with local artists, musicians, politicians and business owners. Participants will discover the city with a group of peers and guides, engaging in new activities at different locations each day of the program.

For more information, visit: or email