The Boston Globe: Special Math Classes Helping Kids

Special math classes helping kids amount to something

By Steven Rosenberg

Globe Staff / March 19, 2009

It's 11 o'clock on a Sunday morning. In a storefront at a Marblehead strip mall, six students aged 10 to 12 sit at folding tables and stare at math equations handed to them moments before by their teacher. For the next two hours, they will puzzle out dozens of math problems with little assistance.

The students are among the first 35 pupils at the newest satellite branch of the Russian School of Mathematics. The school, which teaches algebra to kids as young as 5, began in founder Inessa Rifkin's Newton kitchen 12 years ago.

At the time, Rifkin believed her son was underachieving and decided to start a small class for teenagers. Eight months later, after more than 100 students were taking her class, she quit her job as a software engineer and decided to open a full-time school to supplement the students' regular school math curriculum.

Today, the school has 1,800 students at its Newton location, a camp in New Hampshire, and branches in Acton, Marblehead, and San Jose, Calif. The North Shore branch opened earlier this month.

"We teach them to think; we don't want to explain anything," said Rifkin, who traces the school's teaching methodology to the Russian development psychologist Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky.

Classes are offered to students in grades K-12, and the tuition is $855 to $2,484 a year. While younger students take two hours of classes a week and have an hour of homework, kids in the seventh grade and older have double that workload.

While teachers assess each student's learning level, students mostly work unassisted, solving problems that integrate two key branches of math - algebra and geometry. Teachers do not sit during class but move from student to student to check their progress. If a student is stuck, the teacher is allowed to give hints until they solve the problem. Students frequently stand at the board and explain their answers to the rest of the class.

While the Marblehead students say they don't mind spending Sunday mornings doing math equations, their parents see the class as an investment in their futures. With the economic downturn and the job market shifting ever more toward technology, parents say mathematics is essential to future careers. And with juniors from the school averaging 770 (out of 800) on their math SAT scores and most graduates going on to prestigious colleges and universities, some parents say it's not too early for students to look for an edge on the future.

"It's a competitive world," said Julia Hersey of Marblehead, who grew up in Russia. Hersey is happy with public schools, but said she enrolled her 11-year-old daughter, Alex, in the program to help her better understand logic. "It's about critical thinking and feeling comfortable and being in an intellectual environment where it's OK to be a geek."

"It could help them excel," added Nancy Buczko of Salem, who sends her 10-year-old daughter, Audrey, to the school. "It'll leave a lot of options open to her so she's in a position to pursue whatever it is she wants down the road."

Rifkin says that 40 years ago American schools taught a more focused math curriculum. Now, she says, teachers have to cover 20 different topics a year, and don't get to algebra until middle school or ninth grade. "The American style has a huge curriculum, which is a mile wide and one inch deep. Ours is not wide, and four inches deep," said Rifkin, who grew up in Minsk and attended the prestigious Minsk Secondary School 50 for mathematics and physics.

Before kids can even read, Rifkin works with kindergartners to count and identify triangles, rectangles, and other shapes. By the end of the year, she says, the kids understand the beginning concepts of algebra.

Rifkin also insists that the program is not selective and anyone can learn to do math. "We cover four to five topics a year, and every topic has about 120 problems. We want the children to have enough time to master each topic," she explained. She chooses specific problems that cover previously learned material that includes addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and other forms of math. "Every problem requires up to five steps, and most of the steps are from previous problems. We don't have gaps because we're solving our problems that include old material," she said.

Memorization of formulas is discouraged. "We do not ask students to memorize anything they can't prove," said Rifkin.

Christopher Boucher, acting chairman of the Salem State Mathematics Department, agreed that younger elementary school students are capable of learning algebra and geometry. But he questioned whether part of the school's success could be traced to having kids doing extra work in a subject. He also believes after-school programs such as this one draw better students.

"If it's an enrichment program, those kind of programs usually - whether intentionally or not - sort of cherry-pick the best students and the students who have the most interested parents. And these students are likely to do better on the SAT anyway," said Boucher.

But Rifkin said most kids are capable of achieving a high score if they work hard at algebra. As for the SAT, Rifkin believes it's also a matter of focusing on algebra and geometry. "Most of the questions involve simple mathematics. It's international curriculum that's taught in the eighth grade in Russia and Europe," she said, adding that the test is two-thirds algebra and one-third geometry.

Alina Kuznetsov agrees with Rifkin about the necessity of learning algebra at an early age. For the last two years she has tutored her son, Misha, in the subject. Even though Misha, 12, had yet to take an algebra course, Kuznetsov believed her son was ready for the subject.

"What my kids did in fourth grade in public school, Russian kids do in the second grade or even in the first grade," said Kuznetsov, who grew up in Russia.

Misha said he wants to become a doctor when he grows up. "I think I could have learned it when I was much younger. It's hard, but I understand it."


Steven Rosenberg can be reached at

© Copyright 2009 Globe Newspaper Company.
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