Backstory: An education from Russia, with tough love

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

A few years ago, Julia Sigalovsky was meeting with her son's fourth-grade teacher, who spoke with excitement about class activities. "This week we studied butterflies," Mrs. Sigalovsky recalls the teacher saying. "Last week was the solar system, and next week will be ocean life."

Sigalovsky, a product of the no-nonsense - some would say harsh - Soviet Russian education system, didn't share the teacher's enthusiasm. "I was thinking, 'How do these relate to each other? Where is the process?' I couldn't understand how the students would learn." Her dismay was compounded by the fact that her older son, now 28, had flailed his way through American schools after the family emigrated from Russia when he was 11.

"He was bright, but he had ADHD [attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder]. He couldn't learn with all the disorganization," says Sigalovsky, a small, intense woman given to drawing graphs to illustrate a point. "The lack of school structure did him a big disservice."

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With her older son seemingly consigned to a series of low-paying sales jobs, Sigalovsky - a Soviet-trained geochemist with a doctorate - was determined that her younger son, Daniel, not face similar difficulties. She imagined for him the kind of education she'd received: a highly structured curriculum of integrated, multi-year courses. Discipline and focus were emphasized at Moscow School No. 2. Personal choice was not.

Daniel Sigalovsky now attends the Advanced Math and Science Academy (AMSA), a charter school founded by his mother on the same principles that informed her own education. Assembled under Massachusetts regulations that allow schools to be privately run but publicly funded, the academy in its first year is serving 276 sixth- and seventh-graders and has plans to expand through 12th.

Daniel, a seventh-grader, is studying physics, chemistry, and mathematics - sequential, five-year courses that will be taught by the same teachers throughout - along with a panoply of interconnected humanities. When he and his classmates from 40 surrounding towns come to school in this converted office building, they wear uniforms and follow a set of rules, including an injunction to "always lead by example."

As school systems nationwide struggle to raise standards and boost achievement, charter schools have flourished - more than 3,600 have opened nationwide since the early 1990s, suggest data collected by The Center for Education Reform, a pro-charter group in Washington. AMSA offers its own particular solution. And although traditional in concept, the school in application may be a surprisingly modern response to market forces.

The precepts upon which Sigalovsky's math and science academy is based were much in evidence on an afternoon last week. Upstairs in a classroom tucked beneath the eaves, 15 sixth graders - a mix of Asians, Latinos, and whites - reviewed books 14 through 19 of "The Odyssey."

"So, who is this beggar?" asked a bespectacled teacher doling out equal parts discipline and encouragement. Behind her a placard said: "Be sure brain is in gear before engaging mouth."

Several students responded in unison. "Odysseus!"

"Good. I hope all of you are taking notes. And what theme do we see demonstrated here?"

"Hospitality?" someone offered.

"No, although that is one theme."

"Disguise," says another student.

The teacher nodded. "That's right."

"Oh, I love this book. It's much better than 'The Iliad,' " said a ponytailed girl. Her attention was constant, even after the teacher launched into a discussion of moral conscience and moral authority "from the heart, rather than just doing anything you want to because you can."

Simultaneously with their reading of Greek literature, the students are learning about Greek history, art, and culture in their other courses.

Meanwhile, in a downstairs classroom, a group of seventh-graders was studying physics - a course most Americans don't take until late high school, if ever. A girl led her classmates through a proof: Show that the pressure of fluid doesn't depend on the mass or volume of fluid or on the shape of the container. Using a heavy black marker, she proceeded step by step, replacing variables and eliminating factors until she arrived at her conclusion.

"Very well," said the teacher, Luda Kozhevnikova, a buoyant woman who will accompany this group through five years of physics. "Now everyone may ask questions."

The class is wholly interactive, conducted in an inquiry-response fashion that holds the students accountable for information even as they are learning it. One of the seventh-graders, an amiable boy named Erik Samuelson, said the method helps him stay engaged: "Here, it's always challenging. In my other school, it was kind of easy, and I didn't learn a lot."

AMSA starts at sixth grade because Sigalovsky believes American middle schoolers are badly underserved in an increasingly competitive world. She insists that her academic model isn't unique to Eastern Europe but is similar to those used in China, India, and several western European and South American countries.

"By this age, the brain is ready to absorb highly abstract information," she says. "If kids can play Dungeons and Dragons, if they can understand the universe of Lord of the Rings, where the world is created from a few rules, then they can comprehend physics, where everything is based on three of Newton's laws, or Euclidean geometry, where everything is based on five basic axioms."

She maintains, moreover, that in the same way that nature abhors a vacuum, an adolescent mind left intellectually idle will find something else to do, often with undesirable results.

On this point, Sigalovsky and her students seem to agree. "Before I came here, I was so bored. I got in a lot of trouble," says seventh-grader Laura Schwartz. "The only way I could occupy myself in school was to argue with my teacher."

The stringent academic discipline Sigalovsky has brought isn't always straightforward in an American context, where children may have been raised in relative laxity. Ms. Kozhevnikova says that aspect of teaching would be different in her native Russia. "Students are easier to work with there. It is much stricter overall."

For the most part, AMSA parents appear reassured by the school's rigor and unfazed by any resulting abrogation of freedom. Everyone takes the same 11 subjects, and every period of the day is full. "I don't think kids at this age are ready to make a lot of choices anyway. I love the school's approach, and I love its effect on my daughter," says Maureen Evans.

AMSA isn't without critics. There have been allegations that Sigalovsky improperly drew the majority of her students from districts outside those she is supposed to serve and that she misrepresented the school's true purpose in stating that it can meet the needs of under- and low-achieving students. Several nearby towns have sued to overturn the state Board of Education's approval of the academy's charter. The case is scheduled to be heard by the state Supreme Court next fall.

Essentially, alleges Sheldon Berman, superintendent of schools in neighboring Hudson, "This is an elite, private school operating at taxpayers' expense.... By our review, it's a school that functionally discriminates."

Sigalovsky, for her part, remains adamant that AMSA isn't selective. The "advanced" in the school's name refers not to the state in which students enter, but the one they will achieve.

As for Sigalovsky's sons? The 28-year-old is taking steps toward entering community college next fall. And Daniel will soon complete seventh grade, having spent the school year studying a course of high-level, intensively integrated science, math, and humanities, just as his mother once imagined.

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