With a practiced eye, Maria Gofshteyn surveyed an empty three-story building and envisioned classrooms teeming with young students eager to unlock the mysteries of the Pythagorean theorem and master the ability to translate words into algebraic equations.
Earlier this year, Gofshteyn, a microbiologist, gave up her career in science to pursue her passion for teaching young children. After looking at more than 50 properties in Burlington and Winchester, she settled on the long-abandoned building at 50 Cross St. in Winchester. The former music school, empty for more than a decade, will be home to the newest satellite branch of the Russian School of Mathematics. Gofshteyn will serve as the school’s coprincipal with her husband, Dmitry.
“At this time in my life, I thought, ‘I have to do something meaningful,’ ” said Gofshteyn, a Russian emigre and former college professor who has been teaching at the Russian School campus in Acton for several years. “The school is my passion. Helping students, improving their education, it is the most important thing if we are to keep this country on top.”
Gofshteyn is working with Craig Miller of the Waterfield Design Group, a site design company, and Caruso Companies’ Dave Kane, property manager for the site, to renovate the Cross Street building for an opening in September. Already, about 85 students from Winchester, Melrose, North Reading, Stoneham, and Somerville have enrolled.
From its humble beginnings in Newton, where the school started in founder Inessa Rifkin’s home in 1997, the Russian School of Mathematics has grown from a handful of students to about 8,200 in five states. Classes still are offered in Newton, but today the school also has branches in California, Kentucky, Illinois, Washington, and nine other Massachusetts communities, including Andover, Lexington, and Marblehead.
The school offers math enrichment classes to students in kindergarten through grade 12. Tuition at the Winchester branch will be $112 to $316 per month, depending on the program, Gofshteyn said.
The school’s teaching methodology is based on the theories of learning and teaching rooted in the work of Russian psychologist Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky.
Rather than spoon-feed children formulas and shortcuts for solving math problems, the Russian model of education strives to develop the type of critical thinking that lays the foundation for theoretical reasoning. Problem solving is not merely a section in the curriculum, but the foundation for learning.
In general, the traditional Russian model of mathematics education “ensures a formation of robust and formidable cognitive interests, formation of methods of solving problems, and facilitates a scientific type of reasoning,” said Regina Panasuk, a native of Russia and a professor of mathematics education in the University of Massachusetts Lowell’s Graduate School of Education.
“It does not cover numerous skills, but is focused on connections and mastery of conceptual understanding across the grades,” she said.
According to Gofshteyn, the curriculum focuses on two key branches of math — algebra and geometry — and encourages children to work through challenging math problems.
The struggle to solve a particularly difficult math problem builds character and resilience, and helps children become more self-confident, she said.
“From a young age, children need to learn that hard work is rewarding,” said Gofshteyn, whose son attended classes at the Newton campus for about five years, graduating from the program in 2003.
He went on to Brown University and became an economist on Wall Street.
“I started taking him to Newton for math classes because he had gotten a C in math,” Gofshteyn said.
“When I met with his teacher, she said to me, ‘Your son is not so good in math. Accept it. His strength is somewhere else.’ To me, this kind of thinking was ridiculous.”
By solving complex problems that require children to use math skills learned in earlier lessons — from addition and subtraction to beginning concepts in geometry — mathematics becomes as ingrained in their thinking as the alphabet, she said.
Viktoriya Palamarchuk of Winchester said she believes using weekend leisure time for math lessons is a small sacrifice, a worthwhile investment in her sons’ futures. With Russian School 11th-graders averaging 774 (out of 800) on their math SATs and most graduates going on to Ivy League colleges, Palamarchuk said the school will give her children a competitive advantage in a 21st-century global economy. Three of her four sons attend the school in Lexington; at 3, her youngest child is not yet old enough to enroll.
“The program is amazing,” said Palamarchuk. “It challenges them to live up to their potential and teaches them how to compete at an early age. It’s a valuable life lesson. They need to understand that they must work hard to succeed.”
Two of Palamarchuk’s sons this year received awards for their performance in Math Kangaroo, an international math olympiad.
Timothy, who will be a fifth-grade student at Ambrose Elementary School this fall, won first place in both the state and national Kangaroo competition. Matthew, who will enter second grade in September, placed ninth in the national competition.
“Winchester is a town where parents put in a lot of effort, a lot of time, and a lot of care to make sure their children get an excellent education,” said Palamarchuk. “I think it’s the perfect town for RSM to open a new branch.”