Policy experts and foundation folks who spend their days plumbing the mysteries of effective inner-city education should take a break and head to Dudley Square for a slice of pizza.
On a sunny afternoon in May — perfect hangout weather — 35 kids stroll into Dudley Dough, a storefront pizza parlor operated by Haley House. They have walked, bussed, taken the T. After ordering free organic gourmet pizza and healthy drinks, they find a table in the public atrium of the Bruce C. Bolling Municipal Building, open math books, and dig in.
This is Pie R Squared, a math tutoring program with attitude. It is the brainchild of Beth Segers, a Wall Street financial analyst and a 30-year veteran tutor at Nativity Prep in Jamaica Plain. The program’s goal is to serve students who don’t have access to private tutors or pricey enrichment programs and to bridge what Robert Moses, of the Algebra Project, famously dubbed, “the algebra gap.” Math fluency and confidence, Segers believes, “is the key to inner-city kids moving into engineering and tech careers that are going to lift the boat for them and their families.
“I’d always dreamed of running a tutoring program in a pizza parlor,” she says. “It’s the perfect setting. You come by with your friends after school, you get to hang out, and you get your homework done with lots of good help.”
Pie R Squared marries a healthy meal with one-on-one math work for students in grades three to 12. Students have total ownership of the process. They e-mail their expected arrival time, then show up in the brightly muralled space. From a large booth, complete with pi symbols and whimsical equations, Segers greets them and checks on individual needs.
The fact that the space is public adds significantly to the sense that this is grown-up, serious fun. Neighborhood residents and education department folks from upstairs wander through; the occasional teacher hangs out and grades papers. There’s a cool vibe, complete with background music.
Beneath the laid-back Wi-Fi café feel, Segers keeps meticulous records of who comes, who returns, and how their math grades are progressing. She works closely with faculty, staying current with classroom work so that her tutors are tuned in.
When she isn’t hand-delivering pizza to the tables, Segers is searching for fresh recruits. Or she’s lining up new tutors (one recent day, three of the six available held PhDs in math). Or she is strategizing summer fun that combines statistics, baseball, and a trip to Fenway Park.
An aspiring engineer, a seventh-grader named Nathan, has seen his grades jump from Cs to As in a few months. “This place is awesome,” he says. “If I went home, I’d have to watch my brother and do chores. Here, it’s quiet. It’s my time.”
“I like the environment,” says Ashily, an eighth-grader. “It’s quiet, and nice.” Adds a classmate, Aya, “People are kind. We help each other.”
In six months, this pied piper of the square-root set has attracted 200 students from more than a dozen schools, the support of school math faculties, and even DYS social workers, who bring kids eager to improve skills.
“It’s a win win win,” says Dudley Dough’s manager, Luther Pinkney. “We are providing neighborhood kids with healthy food, we’re building community, and the [pizza operation] is an incubator profit-sharing operation for our employees in an area that needs jobs.”
Segers pays for the pizza, which runs about $500 a week, but is hoping that her success will appeal to a foundation soon. In the meantime, it feels to her a small price to pay for seeing her dream come true. And with the right synergy of local businesses, she can see a pizza/pi on street corners in many other neighborhoods.
And, why not? Pie R Squared is simple, effective, and replicable.
There’s also this: Come 7 p.m., when the program ends and the Dudley Dough staff are ready to call it a day, the kids don’t want to leave.
Kathleen Hirsch lives in Jamaica Plain and blogs at www.kathleenhirsch.com.