Making math count inside and outside of the classroom

  • Article by: ERIN ADLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 11, 2014 - 2:06 PM

With a new Mathnasium location in Shakopee, the chain’s growth mirrors that of the tutoring industry.

Most days after school, sophomore Jimmy Lapsley heads to a Lakeville strip mall not to grab dinner or pick up his dry cleaning, but to brush up on math skills.

This fall, Lapsley was “pretty much failing geometry” — but since coming to Mathnasium, a private tutoring service specializing in math, he’s been getting A’s and B’s, he said.

“The way my teacher was teaching it wasn’t really clicking,” he said.

Mathnasium is one of several national companies that aim to improve kids’ academic skills — if their parents can afford to pay for the extra help.

There are 17 Mathnasiums in Minnesota, including a Shakopee location that opened six weeks ago.

Of the 440 Mathnasium franchises across the country, 100 were added last year, said Vance Fiegel, the Shakopee location’s owner and director.

It’s all part of the growing “supplemental education” industry, which includes competitors Sylvan, Huntington and Kumon.

The tutoring and test prep market — which brings in $5 billion to $7 billion annually — has been growing for more than a decade, with steady growth since 2010, said Steve Pines, executive director of the Education Industry Association.

Fiegel opened a Mathnasium franchise to help American kids, who aren’t keeping up internationally, succeed in math and science, he said.

As a biologist and an entrepreneur, he has “a real passion for the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) disciplines,” but didn’t think he would be successful in a school system, he said.

Mathnasium isn’t just a tutoring center; the company has its own method of teaching math, which focuses on teaching in a way that makes sense to kids, he said. “So I think that sets us apart.”

The program encourages “number sense,” or an understanding of how math works on a basic level. Many kids have gaps in their knowledge, and once they fill them in, math becomes easier, he said.

So far, business has been good. Most of his students are middle schoolers and attend Shakopee schools, with some from Jordan as well, he said.

Behind the trend

The trend toward parents seeking out private tutoring services for kids isn’t new, Pines said, pointing to SAT prep classes that have been offered for decades.

He believes parents today are savvy consumers, and that the “big spotlight on the quality of local schools” has made them more attuned to how their kids are doing academically. College entrance requirements have also become increasingly competitive, driving more parents to seek tutoring help, he said.

Caleb Szydlo, lead instructor at Lakeville’s Mathnasium, doesn’t think more kids are struggling in school than in the past. The difference is that class sizes are so large now that students rarely get the one-on-one help they need, he said.

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