In the fall of 2000, Nick Ehrmann began working as a fourth-grade teacher with Teach for America in Washington D.C. During his second year, he founded Project 312, an extension of the national “I Have a Dream” Foundation that provided his students with a ten-year program of tutoring, mentoring, and the promise of tuition assistance for higher education.
In 2003, Nick left DC to pursue a doctorate in sociology at Princeton University, but returned for his dissertation to shadow his former students as they navigated one of the lowest-performing school districts in the nation. In 2008, statistical analysis of the effect of Project 312 taught Nick something that changed his life: Over the past six years, Project 312 had produced no impact on academic achievement whatsoever. None. And though Project 312 made a difference in these students lives in many ways, these ways weren’t being measured and – ultimately – weren’t amounting to academic success.
Ehrmann knew firsthand that high expectations weren’t enough for academic success. Too many of his former students skated through high school without mastering the core academic skills they would need to succeed in college. Some of them entered higher education for only short periods of time before dropping out. Seeking a better understanding of how educational aspirations become unhinged from academic achievement, Ehrmann was struck by a single statistic: the strongest predictor of college completion is sustained academic rigor in high school coursework, outweighing a host of family, peer, environmental, and financial factors.
Ehrmann was convinced that students like Travis would have benefitted from additional, school-based support to confront academic deficiencies and convert their high expectations into more sustainable academic gains in college. As his dissertation research came to a close, with policy attention focused primarily on the problem of high school dropouts, he sensed an opportunity to reframe what was academically possible during grades 9-12 by focusing on academic acceleration instead of remediation. After researching successful initiatives at the MATCH school in Boston and IDEA College Prep in southern Texas, he became further convinced that with the right set of expectations and supports, 9th grade wasn’t too late for high school students to achieve dramatic gains in achievement.
In the fall of 2008, Ehrmann partnered with the Social Entrepreneurship Initiative (SEI) at Teach For America to propose an urban education fellowship year for talented recent college graduates to connect with small numbers of students in a different way—not as teachers, but as full-time academic tutors. In a nod to Shel Silverstein’s eponymous poem, Ehrmann called the initiative Blue Engine.
In May of 2009, the Blue Ridge Foundation of New York, a Brooklyn-based incubator of innovative, high potential ideas committed multi-year startup capital to support the development of Blue Engine in New York City. Ehrmann also partnered with the Arbor Brothers, an engaged philanthropy startup whose founders provided Blue Engine with financial modeling and general consulting support during the summer months. Three months later, Blue Engine was featured at the 5th annual Clinton Global Initiative as one of the nation’s most promising social innovations.
In June of 2010, Echoing Green recognized Nick Ehrmann as one of the world’s most auspicious emerging social entrepreneurs by selecting him to participate in their two-year fellowship program. The following February, the Robin Hood Foundation announced their partnership with Blue Engine and, four months later, the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation and the Edwin Gould Foundation selected Blue Engine to join their portfolios. Alongside the Blue Ridge Foundation, these foundations constitute Blue Engine’s institutional backbone, offering extraordinary support in the form of funding and strategic guidance.
Blue Engine’s first class of twelve Blue Engine Teaching Assistants began work at Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School (WHEELS) in August 2010. Now in it’s fifth year, Blue Engine has grown to 68 BETAs serving 1200 students in math and literacy classrooms across six New York City high schools.