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Podcast Transcript: Emerging Corps: Blue Engine's Nick Ehrmann

Below is the the transcript for our show Emerging Corps: Blue Engine's Nick Ehrmann. You can listen to the show here.


AMY POTTHAST: Welcome to the Idealist Podcast, I'm Amy Potthast and this is The New Service Podcast from Idealist.org, moving people from good intentions to action. In 2010 a new national service corps is getting off the ground. Blue Engine, based in New York City, aims to recruit a corps of about a dozen fellows for the 2010-2011 school year to facilitate daily differentiated small group instruction for high school freshmen.

Our guest is Nick Ehrmann, Blue Engine's engine and Teach For America alum, who says that we know how to get what you need to get into college, and getting a college eligible because nonprofits and schools have been targeting and tackling hurdles like high school completion, college admissions, and financial assistance. But while the high school dropout problem is far from solved, groups are paying far less attention to college completion rates. Blue Engine aims to close that gap between college eligibility and college readiness.


AMY: Hi Nick and welcome to the show!

NICK EHRMANN: Thank you.

AMY: So I was hoping we could start with you introducing yourself and your vision for Blue Engine.

NICK: Sure. My name is Nick Ehrmann founder and executive director for Blue Engine. Over the past ten years or so since finishing college I've worked in low-income communities basically nonstop. First as a teacher, then as head of a youth development organization in D.C. called Project 312, and then for the past six or seven years as a thoughtful student in sociology. Blue Engine really stems directly from how these experiences intertwined and really motivated what I consider to be the most pressing issue in education in the next 20 to 30 years which is how well students are prepared to actually succeed academically in higher education. And so if you think about it, I mean, it's just really simple that all across the country in schools and classes and communities we do a really good job of selling the students on the dream of college without equipping them with the actual core academic skills that they need to succeed once they get there. That's why Blue Engine exists.

This problem is, as you know, compounded in low-income communities where only fifteen of every three hundred students entering college every year complete a bachelor degree. These are alarmingly low percentages. And we know a lot about the problems and solutions. Student success in colleges – actually completing your studies at a two or four year school – is shaped by many factors to be sure, but what people don't realize is that what the research says about why that is.

Research consistently shows that increased academic rigor in high school is the single strongest predictor of whether or not students actually make it beyond their first year and actually obtain their degrees on time. So as I got thinking about what to do next, what to do after I finished this doctoral program, the problem in my mind was to find ways to actually increase the height they want to get to obtain more academic skills before they arrived on campus in the first place. And that's where Blue Engine comes in.

AMY: I have a question, if I can interrupt. So in my neighborhood we have a school that is considered one of the poorest performing high schools in the Portland, Oregon area and I know that it is in part because there's a school choice here so families can put their kids in a school with a better reputation. So the kids that end up going there are the kids whose parents are maybe less plugged in to the other opportunities or they don't have the resources to get their kids to go to other schools because of commute and that kind of thing. What are the barriers of academic rigor? Like what makes a failing high school or a school that's not performing--what makes it happen that way?

NICK: Sometimes these schools are labeled accurately as being "dropout factories," and some of the worst performing districts – I mean schools – in the country, in part because the students left to attend them are the most disadvantaged kids across the board. And so the students who, for example, start ninth grade at many of these institutions are already 2, 3, 4, 5 grade levels behind in reading and math for example. As a former teacher myself - think about it - if you have such a vast spread of skills in your classroom if you have students who are on grade level and others six grade levels behind them, then your challenge is to have differentiated instruction to meet the needs of every single student - is incredibly difficult compared to the classrooms where that spread is one or two years.

So what happens often times, and what I think Blue Engine is well positioned to be able to help change instruction in these tough locations, is that teachers often teach sensibly to the medium; and even the most effective teachers have trouble reaching high performers all the way down to the lowest performers at the same time. So by clustering small groups of kids and focusing it really narrowly on academic acceleration for where the students are at the moment Blue Engine tries to help those particular schools to become more academically rigorous places.

AMY: And the vision behind Blue Engine and its way of doing things is going to be that fellows are supporting the teachers with that differentiated instruction in place by taking very small groups of students and working with them daily on specific academic skills?

NICK: Yeah that's what makes us different than what's out there right now in terms of post college service opportunities in this vocation. Let me just give a quick overview of what we're doing this year. So this year in New York City Blue Engine is launching an urban education fellowship year for talented recent college grads to connect with small numbers of kids in a different way. Not as teachers but as full time academic tutors. So what we do is to actually integrate those tutorials directly into the instructional day, not before school or after school necessarily. Every incoming freshman class in our first partner school actually has Blue Engine printed onto their schedule. They'll have that course every day, day in and day out, and the goal is to be able to provide students with a really, really intensive attention to the massive amounts of small group instruction for the entire grade level.

AMY: Where are they going to be serving?

NICK: This coming year we are working out of New York City. Our Inaugural team of fellows will be placed in a single public high school in New York. Our selection process for schools is winding down now and should be able to announce our first school partnership sometime in April.

In terms of how they serve in that school building a couple more points on that. This is a bit different than, for example, Teach for America, which places the individual teachers across the entire district. Blue Engine is more in line with team based service programs like City Year, where all of our first twelve Blue Engine fellows will work as a single school day team. So their service year will start with an intensive three-week training institute in August where we'll help them to set ambitious goals and investing in their own success in conducting these tutorials in a way that's measurably effective. And then on day one in September each fellow will be assigned their approximately 12 to 15 students to work with throughout the course of the year. So they'll provide, like I said, direct instruction and academic mentoring and college exposure in college trips, through family outreach while preparing for careers in social change leadership themselves.

AMY: And you're talking about your inaugural group of fellows and I want to highlight that Blue Engine hasn't started its first corps. That's going to be this fall and the application is wide open right now?

NICK: Right out of the gate Blue Engine got off the ground in 2009 and this is our planning year here in New York. And so as of February first we launched the web at BlueEngine.org and our application was open as of that day. So yeah we're actively recruiting teams of students of all economic backgrounds - right now gunning for two to three hundred applicants this first season. The first deadline is March 10th and the second is April 28th so we're excited to see how this first recruitment and selection season shapes up.

AMY: My next question is: your focus isn't on the high school dropout rate even though your fellows are going to serving in high school. So there's a lot of corps focused on the high school dropout rate. There are a lot of proponents of national service who feel that this is or could be the answer to the high school dropout rate. But the Blue Engines focus is on college success and completion, even though Blue Engine fellows are working in the high school level, and right now the first year will be freshmen. Isn't it a bit premature to be thinking about college completion?

NICK: You know I really, really strongly believe that academic acceleration is the key to high school graduation and long-term success in college. And if you think about it this real intent focus on high school grads and the dropout process has produced some unintended consequences for the kids who remain. For example, in New York City, high schools are evaluated on how they produce high school graduates, right? Makes sense. Not whether those graduates are prepared for the rigors of college life.

AMY: Much less anything else.

NICK: Totally, and so, well, think about it. We evaluate high schools on really sensible things that are strongly predictive of dropping out. Like credit accumulation, test scores, attendance, and whether or not students fail core subjects early on starting freshman year. These are huge red flags and no doubt, I applaud researchers and organizations out there who are trying to stem the tide of people who are leaving.

The unintended consequence, though, of this perspective, is that students reach for the bar that is set for them. I spent time, years, on the ground with my former students in D.C. tracking them all the way from fourth and fifth grades all the way into college. What that taught me was the day they reach for the bar that is set and that they pass their courses – they what they're suppose to do – they pass their courses, they come to school enough to avoid – you know- too much attention; they pass their state exams, and they limp towards graduation, they apply to a few colleges, they get their acceptance letters and we all clap and say, "Yeah, you know this is really great you did everything right."

But the problem is that low bar isn't correlated and diplomas we're handing out aren't predictive of whether or not they can actually master the material they need to be able to afford remediation starting day one in college. So they take out loans and enroll in remedial courses that don't count towards credit and six months later they're back on their mom's couch, the dream of college literally dying on the vine.

So to answer your question no, I don't think it's premature to focus on college completion at all, I think its critical and we really can't afford to keep many students out in the world to learn this lesson the hard way.

AMY: So basically the population you're talking about is exactly the same as the people who are at high risk of dropping out, are the same exact people you are talking about wanting to help them, actually wanting to set themselves up to succeed in college?

NICK: Yeah, good question, so a couple things on that. We take entire cohorts, entire classes of students. We're not targeting based on risk factors and we're not targeting students or high potential, high long-term achievers. We're taking entire bell curves of kids; so that first freshman class in our first partner school will probably be 150 students and every single one of those students will be signed a Blue Engine fellow.

AMY: So a student going to Blue Engine fellows for differentiated instruction won't need to worry about being stigmatized? They're not going to be identifiable as low performance or whatever?

NICK: That's the cool part right? 'Cause when you think about tutoring, two things come to mind: it's either you get pulled out for tutoring because you don't know what you're doing and everyone knows you have this sort of tutoring dunce cap on, or tutoring is something that's sort of market-drive as a private sector luxury used for families to be able to have students heading in the right direction for college and higher and better stuff. Which is all fine and good but what is missing is the vast amount of need for the small and one-on-one direct instruction and for students, you know, residing in the middle.

So removing that stigma by offering Blue Engine to all students regardless of ability level is why we think this is an integral component of academic acceleration in schools because it is available and assessable to all kids.

AMY: You're going to have a group of fellows focused as a team in one high school campus for the first year of the pilot year and they're also going to be focused on a single academic subject during the pilot which you've chosen as Algebra One. But in the future that might open to other subjects?

NICK: Yeah, it very likely will open up to other subjects.

AMY: So why focus on a single subject area and then why is that Algebra One?

NICK: Algebra One has long been recognized as the most key gateway course. So if you struggle to master algebra, the likelihood is that you'll struggle in math for the rest of your academic career. And on the flip side, those who master core concepts in algebra have the foundation they need to succeed in more advanced courses such as geometry, trig, calc, and pre-calculus. And so we selected algebra one for very clear reasons from a curricular perspective.

One last note on that: high school students from low-income families in particular those who take algebra and geometry courses, and who master their core concepts, attend and succeed in college at almost three times the rate of those who don't. And so we've chosen it for those reasons but also just to be dead honest with you it would be foolish to start a new nonprofit organization and try to be all things curricularly to all people. And so in order to figure out all the logistics on the ground, and to be able to learn our own lessons on how fellows integrated into the school community, we wanted to be able to reduce our challenge in terms of what we're tutoring in to a very narrow window. And so for those two reasons Algebra One is our subject for the first year.

AMY: And do the people who are applying, do they worry about their own math whiz skills?

NICK: I had someone come up to me the other day at Georgetown and ask one person and say - they got wide eyed - and say, "I don't know algebra I haven't done math since I was in high school." And I said, "Absolutely no problem." We are not screening for pocket protected math whizzes. We need folks who obviously have the capacity and demonstrated capacity through their grades and their prior test scores to be able to be effective instructors in algebra for sure. But also, I mean, if they haven't looked at this material since early in college or high school that's fine, they just have to bring a real enthusiasm and willingness to be able to climb back up that curve. And we provide, over the course of the summer the tools they need to be able to do that.

There's one last point on that too which is that you do definitely – the best teachers of this type of content are the people who know it through and through. There is no doubt about that. But it's one thing to know content and another thing to know how to teach that content. And so we are going to provide, over the course of the summer and through our own professional development, on the ground with our school director role, who oversees our fellows, a former algebra teacher who has lots of experience with actually transforming content knowledge into a very teachable pieces that can be picked up by student training folks to recognize where the gaps are and where the understanding starts to break down. Those two things, we're conscious of wanting to be able to equip our folks with that kind of hybrid knowledge to become really effective instructors over the course of the year.

AMY: So you guys have had some really good support, moral support and financial support. Do you want to talk about who's been backing Blue Engine?

NICK: I don't know how many folks out there have heard of the Blue Ridge Foundation in New York City, but more people should. And people who are interested in replicating this concept should also tune in and try to start these things in their own local communities. It's really phenomenal.

So Blue Ridge is an early stage seed capital investment fund in New York. They have a mission to select and nurture innovative nonprofit organizations in New York City alone.
We reached out to them in early 2009 and they have a very involved, as you can imagine, selection process for their investments. And in May they made they decision – in May 2009 – to invest in Blue Engine, and one of two organizations they brought on board that year. So what that comes with, which is amazing, is $500,000 in start up funding over five years plus in-kind contributions of office space and consulting support here in Brooklyn. So I'm sitting in the Blue Ridge/Blue Ridge bee-hive right now surrounded by six-seven other organizations doing phenomenal work in the city. So it's a really great opportunity.

I should mention too that I was introduced to them by the alumni affairs team at Teach for America, a woman named Zhao Leguta, who leads up the social entrepreneurship initiative. I was in Teach For America right out of college and so they've taken the second part of their mission extremely seriously to help alums across the board be able to translate their own experiences with Teach For America into broader movements to eliminate education inequality in the country. And so I'm here, excited to launch, and ready to get started doing that.

AMY: What are the benefits of service in Blue Engine?

NICK: They receive a competitive package of benefits that will allow them to successfully complete their first year of service. In specifics, there's a stipend of $1,200 a month for 12 months, basic health care coverage, and a free monthly transit card for transportation throughout the five boroughs of the city. So in addition, with an application currently pending with AmeriCorps, we anticipate that our fellows will become AmeriCorps fellows as well, which as you know comes with the loan forbearance and interest accrual payment and $5,000 education award to be used for graduate school or loan payments – however fellows see fit.

AMY: You didn't pull $1,200 out of the air. Like, you researched what other AmeriCorps programs are offering and you know the other AmeriCorps programs and other AmeriCorps members are able to live on in the city roughly that amount.

NICK: Yeah, that's a good point. So we've been working closely with City Year here in New York City and have tied benefits directly with what City Year offers. They're a 10 month service program and the only change for us is that because of our training calendar and academic year calendar and extended that to 12 months.

So yeah it's doable, it's been done, it's happening right now, it's actually as you can imagine far greater stipends than other AmeriCorps members make in other areas of the country. Although it's not all money, it's a real opportunity to work hard and give back and gain skills in the process and be surrounded by amazing people from all over the country who will share this journey with you every step of the way.

So what we're really trying to do is to just create a one-year bridge that's really, really, really intense and focused and provides people a way to connect with students.

AMY: So my last question is: where does the name Blue Engine come from? Does it have to do with the Blue Ridge Foundation?

NICK: I always get this question about Blue Ridge. It's a total accident that Blue Engine and Blue Ridge ended up collaborating. Back when I was teaching in DC I kept a Shel Silverstein book that everyone probably knows about called Where the Sidewalk Ends on my desk. So when things got crazy and afternoons are when we need a bit of a break I just sit on a school and pull out the book. And so there's a twist about three quarters of the way through that book. A twist poem on the old children's story Tommy the Tank Engine The little Blue Engine That Could; and in Shel Silverstein's version called "Little Blue Engine." The final stanza is about how Tommy the Tank Engine gets all the way to the top of the mountain saying, "I think I can I think I can;" but at the very end doesn't make it and falls off and crashes and burns. So the final stanza reads something like, "When the track is tough and the hill is rough thinking you just ain't enough." And so this really hit close to home for me, watching those same students I use to teach have very high education expectations and hopes for what was going to happen once they, again, did what they were suppose to do, get their credits, went to college. And the message behind the name is that without - high expectations are one thing – but without converting those high expectations into the type of core academic skills that you're going to need, long-term, then you're basically setting yourself up for a rude awakening.

AMY: I like that poem a lot. That's a great story to name for your organization after, and I think anything you try to do you want to know what the risk factors are first for failure. And I think that one of the biggest risk factors for failure happens to be low-expectations or –you know- just low preparation for high expectations and you have to account for that in your program design and your goals and all that kind of stuff.

NICK: Yeah, I think that's right.

AMY: Well this has been really fun chatting with you, Nick. I wish you the best of luck and I hope the people listening will pass the word along about Blue Engine. And the application is now available at BlueEngine.org.

NICK: Yep, thank you very much. I look forward to hearing from everyone.


Learn more about Blue Engine at BlueEngine.org. Find links to other resources mentioned on todays show on the New Service blog on Idealist.org/thenewservice. I'm Amy Potthast. Thanks for listening. To find more good things to do go to Idealist.org. If you have enjoyed our podcast, please show your support by going to iTunes and leave a review or rating of this episode or others that you've liked. You can also send us feedback at podcast@idealist.org.

The Little Blue Engine
by Shel Silverstein

The little blue engine looked up at the hill.
His light was weak, his whistle was shrill.
He was tired and small, and the hill was tall,
And his face blushed red as he softly said,
"I think I can, I think I can, I think I can."
So he started up with a chug and a strain,
And he puffed and pulled with might and main.
And slowly he climbed, a foot at a time,
And his engine coughed as he whispered soft,
"I think I can, I think I can, I think I can."
With a squeak and a creak and a toot and a sigh,
With an extra hope and an extra try,
He would not stop — now he neared the top —
And strong and proud he cried out loud,
"I think I can, I think I can, I think I can!"
He was almost there, when — CRASH! SMASH! BASH!
He slid down and mashed into engine hash
On the rocks below... which goes to show
If the track is tough and the hill is rough,
THINKING you can just ain't enough!