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East Lyme - Seema Mukherjee admits she was skeptical about the Kumon math and reading centers concept when a friend first told her about it.
But after seeing the advances her 2-year-old son Josh made within the first few months of enrolling, Mukherjee was hooked. Josh, she recalled, went from beginning to sound out words to fully independent reading in just a year.
"I had to see that it works before I put my heart and soul into it," she said.
Mukherjee, a native of India, went on to start her own Kumon learning center in Michigan before her husband, a scientist for Pfizer Inc., was transferred to the company's Groton campus and the family resettled in Salem. In 2008, she opened the region's first Kumon franchise on Flanders Road, and earlier this year she held a grand opening for her newly relocated center in the Foxglove professional offices that she developed across from Midway Plaza Shopping Center.
So far, Kumon is the only tenant in the elegant 11,000-square-foot yellow building, taking up about half the space. Mukherjee said she is being quite particular about the other businesses that move in. She would like to attract professionals who complement the learning center's work with children. With a current client list of more than 300 students, Kumon has a steady stream of children and parents - from Pawcatuck to Lisbon to Madison - flowing in and out of the building.
The Kumon method, developed in Japan by a math teacher trying to help his 8-year-old son, emphasizes the importance of self-directed learning. The idea, Mukherjee said, is for students to develop self-confidence and independence.
"It's all very child-specific," Mukherjee said. "We don't just use one method we are applying to all the kids. ... This is not a typical tutoring program."
Each child receives a worksheet at the beginning of the session and is expected to complete the problems within about 15 to 20 minutes. Children then bring new worksheets home to continue their lessons for a few minutes every day, and have time at the beginning of the next Kumon session to go over with teachers anything they don't understand.
Vaishali Chavan, a Groton resident who works in the information technology department at Pfizer, said her 4-year-old son began at the Kumon center last summer and already has learned to read.
"I'm seeing huge progress with him," she said. "It seems to be working."
Chavan said Mukherjee expects a lot of the children, but she is not inflexible. Her son's program was adjusted, for instance, when the work proved a bit too much.
"Quality is more important than the quantity," she said. "Awards are a big deal - kids get motivated with that."
Inside the center, children from preschool to high school age arrive steadily with Kumon bags in hand, to work quietly, two to a desk. The only sounds are the shuffling of papers, the opening of a door and the zip of bags being opened and closed.
"Do you have your worksheets?" Mukherjee asks several children as they walk through the door.
Parents stay behind in a waiting room while children complete their work, which is timed and corrected.
"That's perfect," Mukherjee tells one child.
Mukherjee, who has master's degrees in urban planning, environmental sciences and business administration, has built her Kumon center from an initial 50 students - mostly sons or daughters of Pfizer scientists - to more than 300. She has a staff of 11 employees, and normally has about four staff members available to help students.
To become part of the learning center, children must take an initial test and pay fees of $120 a month for individualized instruction. The learning sheets that children use build upon the skills they have learned previously, and they don't move into another area of math or English until they have mastered the previous step.
"Every child has a different way of understanding," Mukherjee said.
She said the average length of stay at her center is two to three years, though some who were with her from day one are still attending. Several have gone on to such prestigious colleges as Princeton, Brown and Cornell universities, she said.
The environment of the center helps children perform well on standardized tests such as the SAT, she said, though the Kumon method is not intended to be a quick fix for someone looking to boost scores. Many Kumon students are able to do high school-level math by grade five, she said, and a half dozen last year were doing algebra in third or fourth grade.
"We don't give the child enough credit," Mukherjee said. "Each child has tremendous potential."
What: Kumon Math & Reading Center
Who: Seema Mukherjee
Where: 179 Flanders Road, Unit 1, East Lyme
Years in Business: 6
Phone: (860) 739-7323
Classes: 4-7 p.m. Mon. and Thurs.; 10 a.m.-noon Sat.