Making math count inside and outside of the classroom

  • Article by: Erin Adler
  • Star Tribune
  • February 11, 2014 - 2:06 PM

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.

The personal attention has really helped Lapsley, he said. At Mathnasium, “It’s more one-on-one type of stuff,” he said. “In school, it’s more ‘Pay attention to the white board or you’ll fall behind.’ ”

Fiegel said kids like coming to Mathnasium because they can work at their own pace, and because tutors keep things positive. There’s also no homework or grades, he said.

Many kids “develop the sense that they’re not good at math, and we try to turn that around,” Fiegel said. “Math can be fun — it doesn’t have to be drudgery or something that they hate.”

Checking in with teachers

At the Shakopee Mathnasium, customers pay a monthly membership fee of $200 to $300 and sign a six-month or one-year contract. Then, they can come as often as they want, though two or three times a week is recommended, Fiegel said.

Fiegel eventually wants to offer scholarships so more kids can afford to come, he said.

“I would not say that it’s cheap,” said Saarang Sudarshen, whose second-grade daughter has been coming to the Lakeville location for two weeks.

Sudarshen said his daughter was “a little bit challenged” with math. “She’s a bright kid; it’s just that sometimes she needs that extra push,” he said.

Fiegel said that when a new student signs up, he contacts their teacher to check in.

Aligning what kids are learning in class and what’s being covered in tutoring sessions increases the chances that tutoring will be successful, said Nancy Thul, director of teaching and learning for the Shakopee district.

“Results vary as much as different types of kids,” Thul said about outside tutoring.

With a wide variety of options available now, including free websites and online tutorials, she encourages parents to be aware of their choices, she said.

Mathnasium offers no guarantee, Szydlo said, and he’s seen instances where students don’t progress. But, “What I’ve always said is that if you show up and put in the work,” he said, “you’re going to get better.”

Erin Adler • 952-746-3283

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