The Boston Globe: A Russian Solution to US problem
A Russian Solution to a US Problem
Emigres' formula for math success pays off in Newton
By Scott S. Greenberger
NEWTON - Irene Khavinson loves her new country. So she pauses, staring sheepishly at the table top, before offering her opinion on how mathematics is taught in American schools.
''I hate to say this, but everything is wrong,'' Khavinson finally says in her heavy Russian accent. ''The approach is wrong. It's too easy. It's not connected. They jump from topic to topic, and topics should be connected in math.''
Khavinson taught math for 15 years in what was then Leningrad before immigrating to the United States a decade ago. She shied from teaching here, fearing she'd have trouble managing unruly American students. But now, after stints as an accountant and working at a drapery company, she's back in the classroom - using an Old World approach in an unlikely setting.
The Russian School of Mathematics, in an unassuming white house with blue shutters a block from Newton Centre, has grown rapidly since Khavinson, 50, and another Russian emigre, Inessa Rifkin, 43, launched it three years ago. Starting with only a handful of students, the two now run after-school classes for about 360 students, ages 5 to 17. The children of Russian immigrants make up the bulk of the enrollment.
But at a time when getting children into top colleges has become a suburban obsession, the apparent success of the Russian School's approach - the SAT scores of many of its students are sky-high - has begun to draw the attention of American-born parents. Even though Khavinson and Rifkin advertise only in Russian-language newspapers, they now teach 40 students whose parents aren't Russian, compared with none three years ago.
''The boys would rather play basketball and soccer and do Cub Scouts - and they do all those things. But we told them we thought this was important for their schooling and their ability to get into college. They agreed and now it's fun for them,'' said Kent Lucken, who recently enrolled his sons Alex, 9, and Ryan, 6.
Alex, wearing his Cub Scout uniform at the school one day last week, says he loves that he's already studying algebra - at least five years before he'll get it in public school. Ryan says the Russian School gives him ''fun things to do, like subtraction.''
Khavinson says there's nothing wrong with teaching young children advanced mathematical concepts such as algebra - in fact, she says, it's essential. Khavinson says American schools ask too little of younger children, then dump trigonometry on them in high school.
Russian parents who remember their own schooling agree.
''It was a surprise to me how they jump from doing nothing in middle school to working on a pretty serious level in high school, at least at Newton South,'' said Natalie Gershman, a Russian immigrant whose son Jeff, a freshman at Newton South High School, attends the Russian School.
''It's too much of an expectation change all of a sudden.''
Betty Kantrowitz, a Newton South math teacher, agreed that students who are exposed to advanced concepts at an early age do well later on. But Kantrowitz, who has won three national awards, cautioned against lumping all American math teachers together. And she noted that the Russian School serves a population that is predisposed to success.
''Clearly, the students who go to the Russian School are interested in learning more than what is being presented to them elsewhere,'' said Kantrowitz, who has at least one student who attends the school. ''Motivated children are always easy to teach and easy to stimulate.''
Motivated and engaged parents don't hurt, either. Rifkin recruited Khavinson and launched the school after she realized that her eighth-grade son didn't know that he could add fractions with different denominators. Rifkin, then a software engineer, began tutoring him. Then she added a few of his friends. Soon, the children of Russian immigrants were coming to her in droves (Rifkin didn't need state accreditation to run a tutoring program).
What Americans might imagine as stereotypical Soviet-style discipline isn't evident in Russian School classrooms: Rifkin and Khavinson don't wave pointers menacingly or rap any knuckles. The students sit in rows of desks and raise their hands to answer questions, just as they do in American schools.
But there are some obvious differences. Teachers at the Russian School don't rely on textbooks or teachers' guides - they make up their own problems, so it's easy to speed or slow the curriculum to fit a particular group. And they say they go deeper than just memorizing formulas.
''We don't tell kids, `This is just the formula, remember this,''' Khavinson said. ''We try to discover the formula together, using all our previous knowledge.''
Most important, expectations are exceedingly high.
One night last week, Rifkin asked her class of high-school students how they did on the SAT math section.
''I got 660,'' said one red-headed boy, apparently proud of what is generally considered an excellent score. A perfect score is 800.
But Rifkin wasn't impressed.
''That's very low,'' she said.
Rifkin gave another boy some credit for scoring 720 - considering his age.
''And you're in ninth grade? It's good,'' she said.
Photographs in the school's hallways celebrate the most successful students: ''Rita Rozenblum, SAT IIc 800/800''; ''Levon Margolin, SAT Math, 800/800''; ''Ilya Abyzov, SAT 1580/1600, 11th grade.''
Not bad for the $12.50 an hour parents pay. Younger children attend for an hour one night a week, but older students have twice-weekly, two-hour sessions. Students traveling long distances - some live in New Hampshire - opt for marathon weekend classes of three or four hours.
But the Russian School isn't a mathematics sweatshop.
Rifkin and Khavinson realize their students are first-generation Americans, not Russians, so they tolerate a certain amount of fooling around. The students speak perfect English, wear Green Day T-shirts and flip-flops, and engage in easy banter with their teachers.
They are all-American - but they are immigrant strivers, too.
''At first you kind of resent it,'' said Jeff Gershman, who plays three sports at Newton South. ''But then you make friends there, and you understand that it will help you in the long run.
This story ran on page A01 of the Boston Globe on 5/7/2001.
(c) Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.