Math enthusiasts hope to multiply their ranks

When a STEM-focused couple discovered their own passion for math instruction, they left their former high-demand careers behind and moved to the Tri-Cities to open the area’s first Mathnasium franchise.

The math leaning center customizes plans for students to catch up, keep up or get ahead in math skills with the goal of making math fun.

“No one ever gets that push to be passionate about math in the way they do about reading or art,” said Jillian Wong, center director and co-owner of the Kennewick Mathnasium, located near Olive Garden at 1408 N. Louisiana St., Suite 103, just east of Costco.

“Math is usually something you just get through. When I started teaching it, I immediately found kids feeling better about themselves and doing better – and it happens quickly,” she said.

Wong has a doctorate in neuroscience and spent the last decade working as a scientist, most recently performing research for the medical school at Northwestern University.

“I figured out what I wanted to figure out in terms of neuroscience, and I realized that research isn’t necessarily what I wanted to continue doing because my favorite part of grad school was teaching and working with students. With a big paper out of the way, I was just looking for opportunities to be in that constructive position again with students,” she said.

She found herself at the Mathnasium in Boise, Idaho, and in a short time had worked her way up to center director.

Jillian’s husband, Eric Wong, is an engineer with a tech background designing microchips for large companies. After hearing about the positive experiences his wife was having in her new role, he quickly sought out a position at the Boise center in his off hours – and a shared passion was born.

“We both come from very technical fields, and we understand that doors open up from being confident in math,” Jillian said. “We want to make sure kids get that opportunity, whether they decide to become engineers or scientists or doctors or whatever.”

Owning a franchise

The entrepreneurs brim with enthusiasm for math and the ability to help struggling students right away with supplementary math instruction.

“You never expect your actual day job to be that rewarding, and to see students go from coming in crying to coming in excited,” Eric said. “So, we figured out we wanted to own our own Mathnasium.”

When they realized the franchise territory was open in the Tri-Cities, the Wongs jumped on it.

More than 1,100 Mathnasium centers have opened in the U.S. and abroad. It works somewhat like a gym where you buy a monthly membership with the goal of completing 10 visits a month, costing about $30 to $35 per visit.

Open classrooms

Instruction is done in an open classroom as part of a 4:1 ratio of students to instructors – with the Wongs as the primary educators. By design, it’s not one-on-one tutoring.

“Studies show that children who have a little bit of independence, a little bit of space to work things out themselves, perform better on tests and exams in the future when they are by themselves without always depending on an instructor,” Jillian said.

During a one-hour visit, students work in a personalized binder to master math concepts and also can get help with school-assigned homework for a portion of the time.

“They’re never working on anything that’s too challenging, and they’re never bored. The other great thing is, there’s no peer pressure. Avoiding that peer pressure is so helpful for the kids to really feel like they can communicate what questions they have,” Jillian said.

Building math confidence

The center’s goal is to build confidence in math that lets students to foster an overall love of learning, allowing them to excel in math with proper encouragement and motivation.

Each student begins with an assessment, which may be offered at no charge as part of an opening promotion. The assessment determines where the student’s gaps and strengths are, to give a baseline for growth.

“Especially with Covid, and all these kids just having their education interrupted,” Eric said. “We feel that kids don’t learn the same way online as they do in person, and there are just a lot of gaps.”

As the only subject taught at Mathnasium, instructors must demonstrate their own math prowess by passing a rigorous exam that covers math concepts through Algebra II, generally taken by the time a student is a junior in high school.

Mathnasium is available for those in kindergarten through 12th grade and is not intended for college students, though they do hope to eventually offer one-on-one tutoring for adults in advanced positions. Students are not assigned homework to work on outside of their time at the center, and their customized binder remains on-site.

“Once we’ve got a full room, what we want is instructors sliding around between students. So, no student is working with the same person the full hour,” Eric said. “It’s all about building independence, confidence and the ability to communicate with multiple people.”

In the first weeks since the center has been open, the Wongs have seen mostly teens sign up. “Teenagers tend to label themselves based off the thinking they don’t have a ‘math brain.’ We want to teach that you don’t have any particular type of brain,” Jillian said. “Everything you’re good at, you’re good at because you worked hard at. I want them to realize, ‘I can get better at this, too, just like everything else I’ve gotten better at in my life.’ If they’re not good at it – don’t stop the sentence there. Add, ‘Yet.’ ‘I’m not good at it – yet.’”

Reward system

The Kennewick Mathnasium offers a reward system for students to motivate them with small prizes, like stickers and chips, to large prizes, like gaming consoles.

“I think once you sneak it in as being fun, and you give them some rewards with their hard effort, kids realize, ‘Oh yeah, I am getting better at this,’ ” Jillian said.

Currently the only contract offered is month-to-month so that families are not locked in for an entire year, though the Wongs see it as a long-term concept.

“Across the country, it’s been found, if you’re coming in consistently two to three times a week, we see two grade levels of improvement,” Eric said. “It can be faster if the kid is further behind, or slower if they’re at grade level or ahead.”

It’s possible for a student to get so far ahead that they’d graduate out of the program, which the Wongs saw happen in Boise with a student who’d originally been tested at a third-grade level while enrolled in sixth grade.

“It’s really up to the child,” Jillian said.

Sessions are scheduled at a student’s convenience, with the goal of two to three times a week to avoid burnout.

Mathnasium’s current hours are available are 3-7 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, but the Wongs are open to meeting the needs of students and will adjust if necessary.

Mathnasium: 1408 N. Louisiana St., Suite 103;; 509-645-3493; @mathnasium.

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