Aline Nguyen is doing her part to sharpen the nation’s competitive edge in mathematics.
The Vietnamese immigrant, who moved to the United States when she was 10 years old, runs a Mathnasium franchise in Penfield, improving the math skills of children from preschool through high school. Nguyen says she sees an enormous need for the services her business provides.
Based on curriculum developed by Lawrence Martinek, Mathnasium aims to teach math in a way that is understood by children. Each of its learning centers works to increase basic skills, comprehension and school performance. Most of all, these centers try to foster a positive attitude toward mathematics. This approach resonates with Nguyen.
“There are so many businesses out there, and if you’re in it just for the money, you can pick anything. You can sell stocks on the Internet; you can do all kinds of stuff. But for me it’s two things: It has to be about education, and it has to be about kids. I think kids hold the key to our future,” she says, adding that she is a big believer in education, especially in America, where the opportunities seem endless.
Nguyen treasures her memories of Vietnam, where she lived an upper-middle-class lifestyle, spoke French and spent weekends at the coast. She left the country in 1975. Her father’s boss at the American Embassy in Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, offered to help him flee. Nguyen recalls her mother packing slowly for the move, keeping it a closely guarded secret.
“My mom was very protective of us, of course, and very discreet because you didn’t want the neighbors to know that you’re planning to move,” Nguyen says. “So every night she would pack a little bit at a time and she would say to my older siblings …, ‘Don’t say anything. We’re going to visit our aunt in America.’”
Nguyen’s family and her mother’s sister’s family, 12 people, took a helicopter to an American ship that took them to Guam, where they lived for a few months. Her aunt sponsored both families and brought them to the United States.
“Most families would have to wait for a church to sponsor them, but my aunt was already here and she was married and her husband had just died of cancer,” Nguyen says. “So she flew in and took us home and allowed us to live with her at home in Penfield, actually, for six months. She has since passed, but without her it would have been a much more difficult start.”
Once again, Nguyen’s father’s boss came to the rescue, putting in a good word for him at Eastman Kodak Co. for a job in its security department.
“My dad was a very lucky man; he didn’t have to do much,” Nguyen says. “He showed up, had a quick interview and they offered him the job because of the word from the boss. So we were lucky in so many ways.”
Her family moved to Henrietta, where Nguyen enrolled in a Catholic high school, going on to earn an undergraduate degree in biochemistry at the University of Rochester and a master’s in statistics from Rochester Institute of Technology. Upon graduation she got two job offers, one from Kodak and the other from E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Co.
“I chose Kodak because my dad was there; my brothers and sister were there,” says Nguyen, who worked at the company as a quality engineer in the quality and applied statistics department.
She stayed at Kodak until 2008 before accepting a voluntary severance package. After working at a few small companies, Nguyen found herself at Constellation Brands Inc. as a supply planning manager. Restructuring at the wine and beverage company moved that position to California, closer to the wineries there. Nguyen chose to stay in the Rochester area.
“I have nurtured this entrepreneurial spirit for 20-some years,” she says. “I’ve always wanted to do my own thing. I’m very independent. I’m the master of my own ship. Whether I fail or succeed, it’s all on me. By being part of corporate America, you don’t always get to dictate that. You can have a job one day and lose it the next. I didn’t like that.”
At her Mathnasium center (there are three in the area), Nguyen works primarily with children who are falling behind in school. A few come because they are ahead of their class.
“I cater to both groups,” Nguyen says. “I have so much material in the Mathnasium database that I can help anybody from a 4- (or) 5-year-old to someone who’s looking to return to college.”
The first step for each student is an assessment of skills, followed by a verbal test.
“(The verbal test is) to kind of understand how does that child see math. Does he hate math? Does he like math, but he’s afraid of it?” Nguyen says. “Sometimes a written test doesn’t capture his understanding. I’ve done a lot of verbal tests where I reversed what I see on the written test.”
Nguyen then develops a learning plan for each student, whether it calls for help with fractions or data analysis. These learners come to the center with or without their homework, depending on their needs. Typically, they spend three to four months at the center; some stay on for a year.
“The older kids get, the more homework becomes important in the grade,” Nguyen says. “And they bring it. We help them, but we always go back (to the learning plan and assessment), which points out to me where their gaps are. It’s like a foundation of a home; if you don’t have that, the house will crumble.”
Students typically come right after school; the center is open from 3 to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday. The center charges $23 an hour for grade school and $26 an hour for high school students. The one-time assessment fee is $100, and the center can conduct a number of these for that price.
Nguyen works with eight to nine tutors, two of whom are staff members. She also employs high school math wizards, which has the advantage that students can relate better to individuals closer in age. Nguyen uses a mix of techniques to help children with focus issues, who tend to get distracted, and with those who need more work to be challenged. For instance, a fifth-grader currently works on seventh-grade math. A successful outcome involves committed parents and an engaged student, Nguyen says.
Currently, the center has more than 40 students. Nguyen would like to increase that number at the current site but is hesitant to open another location.
“Then I would be spreading myself too thin,” she says. “Here I know, when Melanie walks through that door, … that yesterday she had a concert, and I say, ‘How was your concert?’ I know what she struggles with because I update her binder; I work with her on her homework. Just because I have instructors, it doesn’t mean I’m hands-off.”
There are efforts across the nation to improve learning capabilities in mathematics. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, one in five adults in the country lacks the math competence expected of an eighth-grader. A recent study by University of Missouri researchers showed that a lack of a specific math skill in the first grade correlated to lower scores on a seventh-grade math test used to determine employability and wages in adults.
In other cultures like China and India, for example, which churn out many of the world’s computer and math experts, learning math and science is given great importance. When I was growing up in India, studying these subjects was expected of me. When I chose journalism after a career as a scientist, many family members thought I had lost my way.
It’s more than just placing the spotlight on mathematics, however. In the United States especially, students are under pressure to be good at a mix of subjects and activities, including sports. Income, social and family situations like parental splits, along with large classrooms in public schools, can make it difficult for students to ask for help and get a teacher’s attention. Perhaps personal attention could change that.
“I care,” Nguyen says. “If I didn’t care, I wouldn’t be in this business.”
Smriti Jacob is associate editor at the Rochester Business Journal. She may be reached at email@example.com or (585) 546-8303.
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