Even in a pandemic, Los Al Kumon Center making a difference

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Katherine Padilla, left and Kumon Los Al instructor/owner Naomi Rockenmacher.

When Naomi Rockenmacher lived in Japan in her youth, and later worked there during her business career, she had no idea that one day she would own a business that utilizes Kumon, one of the country’s best-known exports.

Students attending the Kumon Math and Reading Center of Los Alamitos have a unique opportunity to take advantage of a self-directed program that inspires the learning of fundamental knowledge that begins with a pencil on a worksheet.

Rockenmacher, who is now a qualified Kumon instructor, is quick to point out that Kumon is merely a “supplemental” learning tool for students. In fact, she says many teachers within the Los Al and Long Beach Unified systems have enrolled their own children in the program.

The Kumon self-directed program teaches only reading and math but allows students to take small steps at a comfortable pace that eventually leads them to higher planes of achievement.

Rockenmacher lived in Japan while growing up in a military family that moved around, later enjoyed a career in international business in Japan after graduating college. Even then, however, she says she did not even know about Kumon.

“Basically,” said Rochenmacher, “I discovered Kumon when looking for supplemental education for my own children.”

The very nature of mass education today, says Rockenmacher, does not easily allow teachers to slow down or provide for individualized instruction when students begin to experience “skill gaps.”

After discovering the Kumon techniques, Rockenmacher said she and her husband Jeffrey, a local chiropractor, decided to invest in establishing a local center in Los Al when their youngest was ready to attend and they though Los Alamitos needed its own Kumon Center.
Their two older children attended in other area Kumon Math and Reading Centers.

It was not easy.

“At first, we were told Los Alamitos was too small to support one,” she said, noting several nearby Kumon Centers.

Using her business skills, nevertheless, Rockenmacher crafted a 70-page proposal, presented her case and eventually was able to make a winning case to the Kumon North America organization.

She was awarded the franchise 14 years ago and opened her location on Los Al Boulevard 13 years ago.

With nearly 25,000 authorized Kumon Centers, the technique has become synonymous with supplemental learning in 57 countries around the world.

Kumon is named for a now legendary Japanese math teacher, who unceremoniously began in the devastated economy that followed World War II. Japan had embarked on a mission to invest in education to restart the country’s war-torn economy.

The high school math teacher, Toru Kumon, was said to grow concerned when his son, Takeshi, fell behind in his grade school math. According to a documentary on his life, Kumon was worried what people would think if his son fell behind in a subject his father taught.

Over time, using trial and error, Kumon determined pre-made worksheets that allowed his son to make progress. When the premade worksheets no longer provided his son a challenge, Kumon began to use his own mastery of math to develop his own.

To Kumon’s astonishment, his son’s grades stabilized after using the worksheets. Soon, his son’s grades began to soar.

Kumon then invited a few of Takeshi’s friends to attend a small math workshop in their home. Long before copying machines, Kumon’s wife Teiko went through a container full of fountain pens as she copied the worksheets developed by her husband.

Before long, the couple noticed that Takeshi’s friends were already mastering the ability to solve high school level calculus equations. The Kumon method was established in 1954.

Rockenmacher says the genius of Kumon was his ability to take advanced math techniques then reverse engineer them to provide hundreds of worksheets with equations that allowed students to learn in small steps; they could achieve at their own pace.

The programs offer instruction from pre-K through high school level.

Based on his success in math, Kumon eventually provided the same lesson planning for reading skills. Today, Kumon Math and Reading Centers maintains 5,000 individual worksheets and updates them annually, the organization claims.

And, with more than 4 million students around the globe, Kumon is today the largest and perhaps most well-known supplementary learning franchise in educational services.

Rochenmacher says prospective students receive a free placement test to identify existing skills gaps, giving students a “comfortable starting point” based on individual ability, regardless of grade level.

“This allows the students a comfortable starting point to build their confidence and motivation to move forward,” said Rockenmacher. From that point on, the students move forward using the worksheets at their own pace.

“Students in math or reading receive an individual lesson plan based on their individual skill level rather than a ’grade level’,” said Rochenmacher.

Though the virus has forced her large classroom on Los Al Boulevard to give way to a massive online academy, the Kumon method remains self-directed and allows students to easily do their work in breakout rooms.

In each room, Rochenmacher provides a qualified instructor who is always ready to assist if students need a nudge.

Moreen Oka who has been one of those qualified instructors with Rockenmacher for many years says Kumon provides students a ‘go at your own pace’ approach for reading and math.

Oka, a graduate of Cal State Long Beach, is working on her teaching credential, and substitutes in the Long Beach Unified School system in addition to her work with Kumon.
She says public school students who stumble onto a skill gap in either math or reading mostly fall behind as teachers must move on. Kumon’s self-directed techniques, said Oka, fill the gaps and inspire confidence in students.

Moreover, said Oka, Kumon students seem to prosper in other areas. “Our students are not only focused on academics; our students are well rounded, play sports, and attend a multitude of extracurricular activities, but still dedicate the time and effort to Kumon and improving their skills,” said Oka.

According to Rockenmacher, students attend classes twice a week, completing their worksheets which are checked “to ensure that they are solving them correctly, to get instruction if needed, and to develop good work skills and study skills.” The other five days they work on it independently at home, she said.

“My role is to ensure that their lesson plan is comfortable every step of the way so that they continue to learn and develop mastery of the basics so that eventually they are able to tackle advanced material on their own,” said Rockenmacher.

Each year, her “completers” celebrate their own mastery of math or reading, and both for some.

In math, Jacob Leung completed 12th grade skills in 7th grade, taking seven years to complete. Leung was ranked #1 amongst 7th graders in Kumon North America. He completed the reading component by 6th grade.

Katherine Padilla, completed in 10th grade, only took 8 1/2 years to complete, and was honored by C-SPAN for a political documentary (see related story).

In reading, Mary Andrews completed in 11th grade, studying Shakespeare, and finished in three and one-half years.

Katie Chen, completed both components by 8th grade. Brooke Tomooka completed in 8th grade and took 9 years to complete

While proud of her students, Rochenmacher is perhaps most proud of the fact that they acquired all of this knowledge on their own, using the “small steps of Kumon.” It’s based on their individual abilty, not the grade level,” she said.

“We are not holding their hands,” said Rochenmacher, “we enable them.” They succeed by adhering to Kumon’s proven principle of self-direction.

Watching her students sail through high school and college is immensely gratifying, she says, noting what drives that inner motivation is one of the central tenets of Kumon.

“Never take over the pencil,” says Rochenbacher, because when you do, the “eyes go elsewhere.”

It’s an amazing program and a testament to Mr. Kumon, she said, “I am only a very small part of Kumon, yet very gratified that I am able to make a very big impact.”