Making It: Summer math camps really add up for their owner

Making It
NUMBERS GAME: Lynn Salvo runs MathTree, whose camps include Bean Counting 101. (D.A. Peterson)
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By Vanessa M. Gezari
Sunday, June 21, 2009

Lynn Salvo wants your 6-year-old to know that there are at least five ways of thinking about the number 152. There's the plastic sandwich bag stuffed with 152 M&M's and the 15 test tubes filled with 10 beans each, with two extra beans on the side. There's the drawing of those 15 tubes, in which the first 10 correspond to the hundreds place, the next five to the tens place and the two leftovers to the ones place. There's the written version of the number, one hundred fifty-two, and its equivalent in Roman numerals (CLII).

"We don't stress out kids with math," says Lynn, owner of MathTree Inc., a math-focused summer day camp with locations in Maryland, Virginia and the District. "Parents want their kids to start out ahead of the game so they never have that feeling of not understanding, being lost. At that moment where a kid doesn't get it -- you don't want your kid to have that moment, because that moment can topple down into fear and then hate of math."

Lynn, 59, of McLean started Salvo Educational Enterprises, which later became MathTree, in 1999, with one session at Washington Waldorf School in Bethesda and another in the basement of a VFW hall that stank of beer and cigarette smoke. The Baltimore native had taught biology and life science at Montgomery County Public Schools and been a stay-at-home mom before landing a teaching gig at Waldorf.

Because the school was small, Lynn was asked to teach not just science but also math. She had to relearn the subject and in doing so found that she loved teaching it. After working as a math tutor and beginning her PhD in math education leadership at George Mason University, she decided to strike out on her own, creating the curricula that would grow into MathTree.

MathTree camps, open to youths ages 5 to 18, include Bean Counting 101, which teaches place value, addition and subtraction, and Multiplication Matters, which focuses on multiplication without using times tables. There's also a two-week general skills camp called MathTree. This summer for the first time, Lynn is offering a camp called Money 101 that builds financial literacy and asks campers to chart a road map to their first $1 million. The camps focus on math concepts for half a day, with an optional second half spent on games, art and puzzles that are math-related but not overtly so. Maureen Kerrigan says her 9-year-old daughter, Maxine, "made, literally, hundreds of pieces of origami fruit" when she attended a MathTree camp last year and looks forward to going back this summer with her 7-year-old brother, Jack.

"What a lot of parents worry about is that between early June and early September, your child has forgotten what numbers look like," says Maureen, of Great Falls. "So it serves as a refresher before you go back."

Lynn's startup costs were a few hundred dollars for rented space (she taught the camps herself). Last year, her gross sales were $266,000, she says. After costs -- which include paying herself and about 40 teachers, many of them college students -- her net was about $23,000. She paid herself $49,500 and a 3 percent IRA match of $1,485. This summer, MathTree will run camps at 11 schools and other locations, including one in the District, two in Maryland and eight in Virginia. Although Lynn no longer teaches kids, she draws pleasure from helping campers explore math in a non-threatening environment.

"I love watching them -- that's why I do it," Lynn says. "It's just so exciting to see kids' expressions when they get it, to see that look on their face -- the 'aha' moment."

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