If new math just won’t do

Parents find specialized schools to fill gaps

Student Michelle Finkielsztein works on a problem in Irena Burmistrovich's kindergarten class at the Russian School of Mathematics in Newton.Student Michelle Finkielsztein works on a problem in Irena Burmistrovich’s kindergarten class at the Russian School of Mathematics in Newton. (Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff)
By Erica Noonan Globe Staff / October 21, 2010

Manny Daphnis, a Bristol Community College professor from Brockton, makes the hourlong drive to Newton every week to bring his 6-year-old son, Hakeem, to the Russian School of Mathematics.

“It is a sacrifice,’’ said Daphnis, who was grading papers for his own students on a bench one afternoon while Hakeem sat inside learning about patterns and variables. “But he shows an affinity for math.’’

Hakeem might do just fine in life with a public school math education, Daphnis acknowledged, while adding, “What if he isn’t prepared as he could be?’’

That’s a question asked by growing numbers of parents who are sending their children to private after-school classes, hoping to give them a leg up in an increasingly technological world.

Most of the nearly 4,000 students enrolled at one of the five Russian School of Mathematics campuses — in Acton, Andover, Framingham, Lexington, and Newton — already attend well-regarded public schools.

So do students at the 50 Massachusetts locations of Kumon, which describes itself as the world’s largest after-school enrichment program for math and reading, created in 1958 by Japanese math teacher Toru Kumon.

Enrichment educators say they think business is booming because Massachusetts parents are increasingly concerned that local schools — even the best the state has to offer — aren’t providing the kind of math education their children will need to compete in a 21st-century global economy. They note that the United States ranks a dismal 23d in math skills among the world’s most affluent countries, based on the results of the Program for International Student Assessment exam in 2006.

The Russian School network, started by Inessa Rifkin at her Newton home’s dining room table in 1995, has grown so well known that its newest campus in Lexington quickly enrolled more than 300 students from ages 6 to 18 this fall, based solely on word-of-mouth referrals, Rifkin said.

And Kumon officials said their Boston area enrollment — with franchises in Belmont, Brookline, Hopkinton, Sudbury, Natick, and Needham — has swelled by 39 percent over the past five years, despite the sluggish economy.

“We aren’t recession proof, but we are recession resistant,’’ said Joe Nativo, chief financial officer at Kumon North America Inc., based in Teaneck, N.J. “Parents want to invest in their children’s futures.’’

An administrator from the Russian School’s Framingham campus also helped found one of the state’s first charter schools focusing on upper level math and science, the Advanced Math & Science Academy in Marlborough. Opened in 2005, the academy enrolled more than 960 students in grades 6 through 12 this fall, and will graduate its first senior class next spring.

The rising popularity of enrichment programs is understandable to Newton School Committee member Geoff Epstein, a physicist and former university professor who has long advocated strengthening the public school math curriculum

He thinks American math education went downhill in the 1970s, after hitting a high point during the 1960s race to the moon, when math and science literacy was widely celebrated.

One major problem, he said, is a pervasive fear and loathing of math among many parents, and even teachers. “There is this attitude we pass on to our kids, ‘We’re not good at math, so it’s OK if you aren’t either,’ ’’ he said.

“But the entire modern work world is based on math, whether a UPS package is delivered efficiently, or whether Google is delivering search results well. It is such a vital component of education, and we are still not close to where we should be,’’ Epstein said.

Rifkin concurred that American culture seems plagued by a terror of math. And proficiency also takes time, practice, focus, discipline, and patience — attributes that can elude stressed-out families and school systems trying to jam students full of facts for the next Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exam, she said.

Rifkin said the Russian School’s aim is not to insult or detract from her adopted homeland’s public schools. “Americans are very hard-working people. The parents here, they work all day and then drive their kids here for hours. What is that if not hard-working?’’

She founded her school 15 years ago after deciding that her son, Ilya, then a freshman at Newton North, was not working up to his potential.

His grades were fine, Rifkin said, but his attitude wasn’t. “He was asking for some help on his algebra, and instead of working it through, he’d say, ‘Mom, just give me an answer.’ I told him that math was fun and exciting, and he said, ‘Are you kidding me, Mom?’ I was so terrified by this.’’

Rifkin and her husband had spent years trying to emigrate from the former Soviet Union before finally arriving in Newton in the late 1980s, and were working long days and nights to establish their own engineering careers.

But she felt the education of Ilya and his younger sister couldn’t wait. She quit her job, and enticed a friend, fellow Russian emigre Irina Khavinson, to join her in launching a math-focused program.

Their start-up grew into the Russian School of Mathematics, which has 2,000 students enrolled at its Newton campus. Annual tuition varies per grade level, between $936 for the youngest children to $2,600 for teenagers taking advanced math training twice weekly.

The school sees itself not as a tutoring service, but rather a community organization with an academic atmosphere. It requires students to commit to regular attendance and homework assignments, and is based on a curriculum still widely used in Russia and many other former Eastern bloc

Because her school’s students are typically mastering math concepts several years above grade level, they often have more confidence and knowledge than the typical public school student, she said. However, in recent years the school has begun instructing students to be extra respectful in their day-to-day school lives.

“We tell them it isn’t necessary to brag, or tell your teachers you come here. You should keep it as your secret weapon,’’ she said. “We say, you must never criticize your teacher, even if you know the answer, or think the lesson is too easy, or wrong. They are doing their best to teach you, and they are teaching as they were taught.’’

The curriculum seems to have worked well for 11-year-old Winnie McCabe of Dover. Her father, Andrew, said he enrolled her at the school’s Newton campus last year because her older sister was taking lessons at a nearby dance studio, and he wanted to give his younger daughter an interesting challenge.

This fall, Winnie was one of just two sixth-graders in the Dover-Sherborn regional district to skip ahead to seventh-grade math. “It wouldn’t have happened if she hadn’t come,’’ he said.

Officials at Kumon say their clients are nearly evenly split between families looking for remedial help, and ones who want to go beyond the public school curriculum. The fee is about $90 per month for weekly classes in one subject, far less than private tutoring, said Nativo, with students enrolled in math instruction for an average of 18 months.

Mary Eich, who coordinates the math curriculum for Newton students in kindergarten through Grade 8, said she doesn’t think the increasing popularity of tutoring services means parents have abandoned hope for their local district.

“There is a lot made of these outside, fee-based programs as reflecting poorly on public school,’’ she said. “I think it is more a reflection of the demographics of the community. As an educator, I am somewhat concerned that not everyone can have that experience.’’

Still, Eich agreed that the culture’s general attitude toward math needs to change.

“We have come to associate doing well at math with innate intelligence, as opposed to other countries who equate it with hard work,’’ the former middle school math teacher said. “We talk about math as if there is a math gene and you are born with it or not.

“As educators, we can do more in terms of emphasizing habits of mind, like persistence, believing that math makes sense, and that if you work hard it will pay off.’’

Erica Noonan can be reached at enoonan@globe.com

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