What started with a Newton mother’s dogged determination to improve her son’s math education 16 years ago has expanded into a nationwide after-school program that has drawn thousands of students to its unique methods for mastering an often unpopular subject.
The school has the data to support their model. Eleventh-grade Russian School students average 774 out of a possible 800 on the math portion of the SAT exam.
The Russian School of Mathematics was started in 1997 as the brainchild of Inessa Rifkin, an engineer who emigrated from Russia nine years earlier and had a son, Ilya, attending Newton North High School.
Rifkin said she and co-founder Irina Khavinson shared the belief that they immigrated to the U.S. for the betterment and education of their children. But when Rifkin saw her son was unable to grasp simple equations with fractions, she knew something had to be done.
"I didn’t see that exceptional knowledge of mathematics [in him], which for me is basic," said Rifkin. "I was completely terrified."
Rifkin reached out to Khavinson, an educator, and the duo agreed to work together to start an after-school enrichment program without thinking much about where that decision may take them.
The women spent three months researching math education materials in the U.S. and worked to translate the techniques they learned in Russia into an educational system they still rely on today and which they credit for their success.
"What we did right is we start from curriculum," said Khavinson.
Students are taught to think logically and learn algebra as soon as they join, as young as age 6. Abstract models are used--as opposed to memorization--and students are taught how to understand formulas and mathematical rules.
A "child cannot memorize that many standalone facts, not-connected facts," said Rifkin, "but [a] child can think and if you teach him how to think logically he can connect anything."
Like learning an instrument
Thomas Hoey of Concord has two daughters in the program. The quality of educators and consistency of the curriculum are what drew him to sign up his girls who are currently in fifth and seventh grade.
Hoey said his daughters put in between five and 10 hours each week between the classes and the homework, but the work is paying off. He credits his daughters for their commitment, drawing a comparison to the efforts needed to learn an instrument or play sports.
Even if his daughters don’t go into mathematics, Hoey said, it would provide his children with a solid background for whatever they pursue.
"This keeps as many doors open as possible as long as possible," he said.
The school teaches students primarily in small, classroom settings based on grade and further broken down into levels that properly challenge the students, according to Rifkin.
Despite their initial concern about the limited potential for their school, the program was an instant success, according to the founders. There were 66 students at the opening night at a local temple and when they had an open house at a small storefront in Newton Centre a year later, 150 people lined the parking lot waiting to sign up.
Rifkin said she isn’t sure if the school would have taken off if it had started somewhere else. She credited the highly educated population of the area as drawing parents who were looking for more for their children and allowed the program to grow through word of mouth from professors, engineers and other highly educated parents.
Courses in Newton range from $19 to $25 per hour.
There are now 15 Russian School of Math schools teaching more than 8,000 students in California, Illinois, Kentucky, Massachusetts and Washington. The expansion was originally organic, with participants and former colleagues wanting to bring the Russian School to their communities. But starting in 2009, the cofounders began looking at targeted expansion. Except for one, all of the schools are all owned by RSM.
Khavinson and Rifkin said they plan to add three more schools next year, including a possible location in neighboring Brookline. They also are looking to upgrade their online offerings to existing students and provide more tools to students.
Rifkin said learning math could help students outside the realm of the classroom. She said math teaches children to think and to organize. With those qualities, Rifkin said, children can become good learners and use those skills in whatever field they chose later in life.