Brookline Tab: Math Program Grows Exponentially

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EXCERPT from Article by Ignacio Laguarda on November 7, 2013

Brookline, MA - Don’t tell Inessa Rifkin that children don’t like math. She’s got 16 years of experience to prove otherwise.

The co-founder of the Russian School of Mathematics believes the notion that children hate doing math is a misconception, and that young students are not averse to math, but rather, to the way it is normally taught in school systems.

“Kids naturally are very curious and like to be challenged,” said Rifkin.

The Russian-born Rifkin started the Russian School of Mathematics in her living room in Newton, and now the school has 18 locations spread out around the country. It has amassed an enviable track record of helping students improve in mathematics and get high scores on the SATs. The average SAT math score for students at the Russian school is 774 out of 800. RSM students also consistently post top scores in national and international math competitions.

This month, the school that has spread to 11 locations in Massachusetts, as well as to California, Washington, Illinois, Connecticut and Kentucky, will open a Brookline location at 1615 Beacon St.

For Irina Khavinson, another of the founders of the school, the secret to the success of the RSM is using a different methodology to teaching. Whereas traditional math classes prioritize computation and worksheets from an early age, the Russian School uses a curriculum that is more “logical” and challenging, pushing the students to learn concepts over memorization.

Khavinson’s daughter attended Brookline schools, and she said the Russian School of Mathematics has received a lot of demand from Brookline.

“For years, we have people who ask for us to open in Brookline,” said Khavinson.

Rifkin said the Newton branch has had more than 200 Brookline students come to the center. The school originally operated out of Rifkin’s living room before moving to Newton Centre. Now, the main location is near the Newton/Needham border.

“We’ve had Brookline customers since day one,” said Rifkin. “Even in my living room, we had people from Brookline.”

Kristin Lynch, vice president for marketing for the school, said the Brookline school will be the 18th location in the country, and the school has grown almost entirely from word-of-mouth.

“Seeing the success other kids have had brings more parents in and they hear about it through their coworkers,” said Lynch.

Today, the after-school program has more than 10,000 students.

Rifkin said another key to success for the school is the focus on curriculum, which was heavily stressed since the very beginning. Right now, they have an entire curriculum staff of about 20 people.

The focus on curriculum led the center to a system in which each grade is broken up into three levels, depending on the level of the students.

“We invested a lot of time and a lot of money on creating curriculum,” said Rifkin, referring to the school, which also employs five workers in the training department as a “little university.”

The idea for the Russian School of Mathematics started with Rifkin when she moved to the United States in the early 1990s, and later realized that the education her children were receiving was not up to her standard.

Rifkin has a double master’s degree in mechanical engineering and computer science.

“I was not satisfied with the level of preparation,” she said, describing her reaction to her sons’ experience in school.

She wanted someone to teach them in the Russian tradition, and her search led her to Khavinson, a former teacher in Russia.

Eventually, the two grew the small school into one of the more successful after-school programs in the area.

“The secret formula here is the kids really do like this program,” said Lynch.

Lynch’s son attended the school, and she said he loved the program.

“It’s enjoyable. When learning is fun, students retain the information. And they come back for more,” said Lynch.

Elementary-aged students at the RSM take classes at the school for two hours a week. Sixth graders take three hours, and seventh grade students take four hours. In each case, homework is assigned, but is not meant to take longer than half the amount of time spent in the classroom each week.

Ralitsa Dimitrova is principal of the Russian School of Mathematics. One of her sons attends Brookline High School, and the other graduated from BHS.

She moved with her family to the United States 10 years ago from Bulgaria.

Excited to experience a new country, Dimitrova said her first real disappointment was seeing the science and math education her children received.

“I was really afraid that I was taking away from my kids an important part of their education by not giving them the opportunity to learn math in a proper way,” she said. “At a certain point I was even ready to go back..”

Eventually, she found the RSM and enrolled her children.

Dimitrova likes to tell prospective parents that her two sons’ experiences could not have been more different. One loved the school, while the other begrudgingly attended classes.

But the unimpressed son scored an 800 on the math SATs, she said.

Rifkin said a math education is crucial for critical thinking and building problem-solving skills. The school gets hundreds of thank you letters from former students, who not only thank them for getting a great SAT score, but for helping them become sharper.

“I don’t know any other subject that prepares your mind just to comprehend new material the way math does,” she said.

The Brookline school will start with 100 students initially. The price is $180 a month for two-hour classes per week. For more information, visit


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