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Private center for gifted students adds program for those who struggle in math

Plantation — One question often asked of those who run a math program for gifted children: If it's so great, why don't you do it for everybody?

Now, on the heels of the founder's retirement, the Institute for Mathematics and Computer Science, a learning center that produces talented mathematicians like some schools produce star athletes, has created a pilot program to help struggling students.

Twice a week for about a month, 8-year-olds have sat in the center's pastel blue rooms to sharpen their multiplication skills and gain confidence in their abilities. The program, started in February and called Boosted Learning for Achievement on Standardized Tests, or BLAST, is free and open to second-grade students who score between the 40th and 70th percentile on standardized tests.

At first glance, the center's 800 traditional kindergarten through 12th grade students and the 23 BLAST students seem to learn drastically different things. For example, fourth- and fifth-graders: modular arithmetic. BLAST: even and odd numbers. But the academic foundation is the same: logic and critical thinking skills.

"We're doing more than simply the content of the lesson," said Ed Martin, who co-founded the center with Burt Kaufman in 1993. "It's training the child's mind, and that has a huge effect."

Burt Kaufman has retired
IMACS co-founder Burt Kaufman

Kaufman, 74, retired in November because of cancer-related health issues.

The idea for what would become the center's curriculum started in 1960. Kaufman was enrolled in a summer class for practicing teachers and gifted high school students at the University of Notre Dame, where he earned a master's degree.

"The kids were quantum leaps ahead of the teachers," Martin said. "He was embarrassed."

Kaufman moved to Broward County in 1963 and helped Nova High School establish its math program, re-creating the summer class curriculum. Over the next two decades, he moved to Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and the St. Louis area public schools, and refined the program.

He returned to Broward in 1981, bringing the program to public schools, but the district cut it 12 years later to save money. So Kaufman, his son Terry, Martin and their partner Iain Ferguson saved the program by going private and charging $30 an hour.

BLAST, Terry Kaufman said, seemed like the natural next step. In the 14 years since opening the center, he said numerous parents walked through the doors wondering if it might give struggling students a boost. With no remedial programs, they were turned away.

"Think about how many times you hear: 'I was great in math until ...,'" said Ted Sweet, 35, who graduated from the program in 1989 when it was in public schools. "What that means is there is a potential there that didn't get filled."

Students in BLAST might never correct their college math instructors as did Sweet, who left AT&T labs and academia in 1998 to work with the center. Still, by working in small groups, center officials say the second-graders will develop the self-discipline and confidence to excel.

The proof, Terry Kaufman said, is in the proverbial pudding. Instructors spent weeks last school year working with students at Downtown Academy of Technology & Arts, a Fort Lauderdale charter middle school that went from an F to A school that year.

This year, the center wanted to help struggling students before they got to middle school. Center officials are awaiting BLAST students' new test scores before scheduling the next class.

"Younger kids," Kaufman said, "are more open and not as beaten down by the system."

Akilah Johnson can be reached at akjohnson@sun-sentinel.com or 954-356-4527.