Families come to Kumon

Alternative learning centers help struggling students

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Anna Dvorak completes her math lesson with the help of teacher Susan Kushion, who, with husband Gene, operates a "Kumon Center" in Mt. Pleasant. Students taught with the Kumon method advance according to individual ability rather than age or grade level.

Anna Dvorak is the bright daughter of college-educated parents, but the 9-year-old was struggling with math in the Alma schools.

Then her mother heard about a program in Mt. Pleasant that was having great success in teaching math. That led her to the Kumon Center of Mt. Pleasant, operated by Gene and Susan Kushion, both of whom are public school math teachers. Gene teaches geometry, advanced algebra, and trigonometry at the Midland Bullock Creek High School, while Sue teaches seventh-grade pre-algebra at the middle school in St. Louis.

Kumon Centers are a radical new import from Japan and are springing up across the United States and Canada. According to a recent issue of the organization's newsletter "Kumon New Quest," 2.5 million students are enrolled worldwide, including 75,000 in the U.S. and over 30,000 in Canada. Michigan already has 40 Kumon Centers concentrated in suburban Detroit and larger cities in mid-Michigan.

Six years ago, the Kushions' twin daughters, then in third grade, were having math challenges of their own. Sue and Gene began to tutor them at home, but were frustrated with their slow progress. Being conscientious parents, they looked for outside help; a friend recommended a Kumon Center. The Kushions were so impressed with the progress made by their twins that two years later they accepted the opportunity to run the Kumon Center themselves. It is located in a large and comfortable Sunday school classroom at the First Methodist Church in downtown Mt. Pleasant.

Forty-three school children, from young elementary to late middle school, regularly visit this math teaching program. The Mt. Pleasant center is open from 4 to 7 p.m. five days a week. The students work a maximum of 20 minutes each day on their Kumon math lessons, either at the center or at home, but they do the lessons seven days a week. It seems like an old-fashioned approach. There are no calculators or computers allowed. Students use pencil and paper to do every calculation.

Any newly enrolling child takes a placement test to establish his or her skill level. School grade does not matter because the math is not taught as a class. It is all individualized. Students start at a comfortable level to help achieve success right away. That builds confidence, and soon they are hooked on math: young kids eagerly learning math as fast as they can.

Upon entering a Kumon Center classroom, one finds children absolutely silent and focused intently on their papers. None of them generates any distractions or conversation. They are too committed to finishing their papers, because, in addition to accuracy, their speed is also counted. The children may have up to 10 pages of problems to do that day, but they are allowed only a maximum of two minutes per page. Approaching one minute per page is the goal of each student, for then they are demonstrating "mastery," and will be able to move on. If they take too much time, they "loop back," doing a set of papers over and over until they master it.

In his book "Every Child an Achiever: A Parent's Guide to the Kumon Method," author David W. Russell describes the philosophy of the Kumon system. "Because learning is teacher-driven in the typical educational system, children all too easily become passive agents in the learning process," Russell writes.

The Kumon Method turns that process upside-down. The goal of Kumon is to make learning a student-driven activity, to put the responsibility on the student, not on the teacher. It is common that students faltering in math, after a year or more in a Kumon Center, achieves mastery of math at one or two grade levels above their own grade. Those who choose to can follow the program beyond differential and integral calculus. According to the Kumon Institute, "decades of experience with hundreds of thousands of students have shown that learning occurs most efficiently when two criteria are met: 1) The level of the material to be learned corresponds exactly to the learner's level of ability, and 2) the rate of progress is controlled by the students, not the teacher."

The Kumon Institute has been invited into hundreds of American schools to help thousands of students master math, and even reading, at their own pace. For her part, Anna Dvorak, after nine months in the program, is now scoring 40 out of 40 in her speed tests at public school, and she is still doing only 20 minutes of Kumon math daily.

As for Gene Kushion, with 29 years of teaching math in the public schools, he says, "Nothing I can do in the school classroom can give me the satisfaction I get from seeing the progress made by young students at our Kumon Center. There's no comparison."

For more information on Kumon, interested parties may call 1-800-ABC-MATH or visit the Kumon Institute's Web site at www.kumon.com. The Kushions can be reached at (989) 773-9903.