Parents whose children attend large public school districts are increasingly becoming more involved in bridging the gaps that have been created due to budget cuts.
Finding ways to supplement a laid off music teacher or paying for a language instructor are some tasks that seem to have become as routine as acting as chaperones on field trips or baking cookies for sales were 15 to 20 years ago.
As a supplement to their children’s education, some Westside parents are using the services of Narbik Manukian, Phd., a physicist who has created “Be a Mathematician,” an after-school enrichment initiative in mathematics that is being taught to students at six Westside elementary schools.
The courses cover the Los Angeles Unified School District’s standards for public school mathematics, according to a synopsis of the program. The subject matter for the 10-week course consists of fractions, negative numbers, statistics and probability and geometry.
The sessions cost $110, or $11 per session for each student.
Manukian says teaching math conceptually, in his opinion, is the best method for engaging students and preparing them for a future in math related fields.
Be A Mathematician is being taught at six local elementary schools currently – Cowan Avenue, Kentwood and Paseo Del Rey in Westchester, Playa del Rey in Del Rey, Walgrove Avenue in Mar Vista and Westminster Avenue in Venice.
Manukian chose his son’s school, Cowan Avenue, three years ago as the pilot program for Be A Mathematician, which he taught himself.
“I was surprised that the children grasped the concept immediately,” he recalled.
The parents pay individually at Cowan for the mentoring program, and Cowan Avenue Elementary Principal Richard Da Sylveria says it has become one of its most popular initiatives.
“(Manukian) went beyond math procedures with the students and instead approaches math as a language,” Da Sylveria said. “His program has been a big hit here.”
Manukian said the innovative portion of the math immersion plan is that it is taught as a conceptual language.
“We look at it as a language of ideas and concepts, rather than as a set of rules and procedures,” he explained. “When you teach it as a set of rules and procedures, which is commonly done at the elementary school level and even in middle school, you end up with an adult who says, ‘I forgot how to do this.’
“It’s like forgetting a recipe.”
Manukian said once the students become proficient with the concept, they can determine the procedure themselves.
“The procedure follows the concept, not the other way around,” the physicist said. “That’s the fundamental philosophy behind it because everyone that I know who does mathematics for a living thinks of it that way.
“The real question was, can we do this with children.”
Sarah Reimers’ daughter, Molly, attends Walgrove Elementary School and she has seen meaningful changes in how her third-grader reasons after four months in the enrichment program.
“The very first day that she was in the class I felt as though I received confirmation that we were receiving what had been advertised,” said Reimers, the co-president of the Friends of Walgrove, the school’s booster club. “One of the things that really sold me on the program was learning math conceptually and not just as learning the process steps of how to do math.”
Reimers said her daughter seemed to understand the concepts of her lessons, and she is happy that the booster club, which is paying for the program, decided to bring Be A Mathematician to Walgrove.
“Her confidence will make her excited to learn the next step in her math career,” she said. “And that’s exactly where I think our educational system right now is lacking.”
Walgrove Elementary School Principal Arlene Fortier said she believes the enrichment program gives students a different way to look at mathematics.
“This is something that we are implementing for the benefit of our children who have an interest in mathematics and it teaches them from a different approach,” Fortier said. “(The students) are really coming at math from a thinking standpoint and their math teachers connect to them and connect to their interests.”
Fred Page, a Westchester High School math teacher, says he sees how his third-graders learn concepts much faster than older students. “They’re able to pick up on them very quickly,” he said.
Page said he was surprised how rapidly his young students have taken to the subject matter of their sessions and they seem to enjoy it. “What’s also so surprising to me is their ability to remember and retain the information,” the teacher said.
Fortier said Manukian’s system is helping to foment what Walgrove and other elementary school students need to learn at an early age.
“We’re really introducing those skills for many of our students to help them develop that sense of math that will allow them to truly access the next level of those inquiry processes that they get here (during their normal classes),” she said.
Page gives his class challenges during the hour-long session, which take the students, Manukain says, “further and beyond and make them think” about what they have learned.
“They really get excited about the challenges,” he said.
Page said he hopes Be A Mathematician will be expanded to other schools throughout the district. “I’m hoping that we can take this program across the board and spread it across LAUSD,” he said.
Coby Dahlstrom said her 8-year-old son, Wyatt, who is now taking his third session, loves taking the Be a Mathematician course at his school, Westminster Avenue Elementary.
“It’s really great to see that extra bit of excitement from him,” Dahlstrom, the past president of the school’s booster club, told The Argonaut. “It really pulls his brain in the direction that he wants it to go.”
Wyatt said he has learned decimals, fractions and probability in his classes. His eyes opened wide when asked about the challenges that the students take part in at the end of their class.
“Once you finish all of your regular problems, there’s this really hard problem waiting at the end,” he said. “They’re a lot of fun.”
Reimers said participating in and supporting the program indicates how parents are banding together to give their children in public schools additional or supplemental tools to enrich their education.
“I absolutely think this is the perfect example of how the private sector can work with public school parents,” Reimers said. “To me, anything that we can add on to the standards based education that actually promotes critical thinking is invaluable, and this is one of those things.”
Dahlstrom credits Manukian for introducing her son and other schools to Be A Mathematician. “I really think highly of Dr. Maukian,” she said. “His heart is really in the right place.”
Page said working with the younger students has given him inspiration as well.
“I’m considering going for my elementary school credential,” he said. “The main difference between these children and high school students is the younger kids really are eager to learn new things and a new way of thinking.”
Manukian said most elementary school students will probably not become extremely proficient with algebra and other subjects that they are seeing, but they are likely to see the results in their later academic years.
“When they revisit these things and they begin to take the courses more formally, hopefully they’ll be a leg up on it,” he said.
“But it’s the conceptual language approach, in my view. If they are ever going to be proficient or conversant in mathematics, then they will have to think of it this way.”