The third grader stood up, shocked that he got the addition problem wrong again. It involved adding hundreds.
“What did you forget?” asked the tutor from across the small table. Three other kids sat beside him, working the same problem quietly.
A bead counter sat next to them, in case they needed to manipulate the beads to see the addition instead of doing it all in their heads.
“I forgot to carry the two.”
“OK, try that.”
He tried it, got the right answer this time, then sat back down.
This is a typical scene at Mathnasium, a tutoring service based at the Andorra Shopping Center that opened in January 2012. It provides math homework help and a summer math camp to students in first through 12th grades.
Indira Lawson, who has experience leading an alternative high school in Philadelphia, is the owner and director. She left the school district a year ago to buy this local franchise of the national Mathnasium chain.
She and her tutors assess their young clients’ skills when their parents bring them in for help. Then they personalize a tutoring program that seeks to build on the students’ strengths.
Mathnasium covers everything from basic math to algebra, geometry and other advanced math subjects.
Students are assigned a tutor and group with whom they practice solving problems with guidance. They use the multimodal Mathnasium curriculum, play math games, and even literally write on the red-trimmed white walls of the Mathnasium center.
“We ask families to sign up for monthly memberships like at a gym, hence the name,” Lawson says, “but the hourly breakdown is about $25-35 per hour, with students typically coming up to 12 times each month with the memberships.”
Pricing is based on membership type, grade level and whether students come for remediation or enrichment.
“Personal training, [one to one] tutoring, is also available and costs about twice the amount of the membership costs,” explained Lawson.
Lawson’s four staff tutors, whom she vetted and personally trained, work with about 15 students each day right now, but she says, “I know that number will increase with the upcoming school year.”
Learners at Mathnasium routinely practice mental math lessons and games. They work with manipulatives (like those beads) or write out and discuss processes for finding solutions.
Trying to keep skills fresh
One of the goals, Lawson said, is to reduce the “summer slide,” the loss of skills that many students experience during the long vacation between school years.
“We have seen improvements with student confidence and post-assessment scores. I’m still collecting data so I don’t have hard numbers to give to you,” Lawson said.
A veteran Philadelphia educator with a friendly smile, Lawson brings experience as a teacher, principal and consultant to her new venture.
“Summer is tricky and this is my first summer with Mathnasium,” Lawson said. She sees two types of parents coming to tutoring centers over the summer.
One is what she calls the “quick fix parents,” whom she says she must tell that a quick fix cannot take place.
“It takes time to fill in gaps and undo things that are happening. So there needs to be consistency” over the summer, Lawson explained. “Other parents want to just keep the kids engaged to prevent the summer slide.”
The center opened in January. One of the first students, Brea Frazier, who is 14 and a rising ninth grader from West Mt. Airy, also came in this summer to get a preview of Algebra One, which she will take in the fall.
“I learned a little bit of algebra in eighth grade, along with order of operations and other things that dealt with x and y,” she said. “In ninth I’m going to be learning more and more algebra that is probably more advanced. Miss Indira has helped me so much.”
She added: “It’s easy to like something that you are good at.”.
Lawson is on a mission to not only improve student math skills but also to change how people talk about math. She thinks the benefit and fun of math are there to be revealed, not forced. Thinking math is too hard for you, or is only for special types, is one of the main things that limits people’s success, Lawson believes.
“Some parents openly talk about not knowing math, and I have made the comment to parents: Why is it that you will never hear an adult say they cannot read, but you will always hear people saying they can’t do math?” she said. “And why is it OK to say? I want to change that.”