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MathAltitude teaches new equation for learning


WORCESTER — When more than 50 Worcester-area kids participated in an international math competition at the end of March, they weren't just drawing on their American math education: Most of them have now spent some time learning a European way to math success.

It's all part of what MathAltitude Principal Olga Serebrennikov and her husband, Boris, co-founder of MathAltitude School of Mathematics, are sharing with children in the Worcester area to help them improve their skills.

You might say it all began for the Serebrennikov family after they'd moved here from Russia and put their son Michael in an American school.

"Quite early, we noticed that the school system was very different from what we were used to," Ms. Serebrennikov said.

With skills and advanced education in math and engineering, both in Russia and in the United States, the two were discouraged by what they saw students learning — or not learning — in public education.

"They cannot parse information, ask questions," Ms. Serebrennikov said.

More important, they were not prepared for advanced mathematics.

"As soon as they have more than two steps, they have a problem," she noticed.

They traced the difficulty, they believed, to some basics: not enough practice and not enough word problems early enough in their education.

"It isn't because the children are not bright," Ms. Serebrennikov said. "All children are bright."

The two believed they could provide a solution — math enrichment.

Ms. Serebrennikov tutored math in several other programs before the family began to consider starting its own endeavor.

"I'm not a big believer in franchises in education," she said, though she acknowledged that some of them are quite successful. "I guess we're all doing good things," she said.

But for the Serebrennikovs, starting a math academy, where they could take their passion for teaching and their natural and enhanced skill in math and also fill a need they saw, seemed like the place to spend their energies.

MathAltitude is the result. The after-school and Saturday program serves about 50 children from ages 4.5 to 11th-graders, a span that is not at all daunting to the Serebrennikovs. Ms. Serebrennikov said that, for the 4.5-year-olds, of course, the program is all enrichment; for older students, it can verge on critical as they prepare for higher education.

For the children in the program, Ms. Serebrennikov takes a European style of education, which she says involves more word problems and more intensive study than can be encompassed in the classroom during a school year, where so much needs to be covered.

And when it comes to word problems, she keeps it lively and interesting, using characters from books these American children will find interesting.

The school incorporates the Massachusetts Curriculum Framework for Mathematics into six different programs for different age groups, or into private tutoring.

While the school is a math enrichment institution, Ms. Serebrennikov admits that at present it's a little less enrichment than helping students who are struggling.

She's confident that someday that ratio will turn around, but it will take time and require education of the educators as well.

As an educator, Ms. Serebrennikov has, of course, an opinion about standardized testing, which she said is always evolving: It may measure gaps but doesn't seem to be helping students or teachers. She admits the need for assessment and notices that the evolution of MCAS is changing to meet new standards.

She points proudly to pictures of the youngsters from Worcester who participated in the Math Kangaroo 2013 competition last month; all are smiling. Many, she said, carry the dreams of their families, many of them immigrants, to succeed in science or technology, where math to support those disciplines is crucial.

And while MathAltitude does charge fees, the organization also conducts free events for Worcester-area schools, "It's our way to give back to the community," Ms. Serebrennikov said.

MathAltitude is in its second year at its three-room headquarters at 35 Harvard St. Ms. Serebrennikov said it will soon be expanding to more classrooms inside the building.

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