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Backstory: An education from Russia, with tough love

By Cynthia AndersonContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / June 7, 2006


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."

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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."

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.