Now in its second year of full operation, Blue Engine places recent college graduates interested in public service — known as Blue Engine Teaching Assistants, or BETAs — into the classrooms of low-performing schools such as the Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School, where the program was first implemented. There, they work with small groups of students to reinforce the lessons taught by the lead teacher — or “alpha.”
Ehrmann traced the idea for the model back to the difficulties he faced as the only teacher in a large classroom while working for TFA.
“I loved being a teacher, but it was very frustrating to know that I couldn’t be in 30 places at one time,” Ehrmann said. “I knew that I was at my most effective when I was working in small groups, but I couldn’t be five people at once.”
During his two years teaching in Washington, D.C., after graduating, Ehrmann worked with the same group of students throughout their fourth and fifth grade years. He grew increasingly frustrated by their lack of the financial resources necessary to attend college, despite the talent and potential he saw in them.
“I just really fell in love with that group of students,” Ehrmann said.
The following year, he moved out of the classroom and partnered with the “I Have a Dream” Foundation to launch Project 312, which aimed to raise long-term scholarships to fund his former students’ college educations. This project was driven by a belief that students’ performance in school might change positively if they saw college as a plausible reality.
After spending the students’ sixth grade year in Washington to help start up the organization, Ehrmann came to Princeton the following year to begin his graduate studies in the Department of Sociology and the Office of Population Research. He worked closely with sociology professor Douglas Massey — who would later co-chair Ehrmann’s dissertation — on the National Longitudinal Survey of Freshmen, a Princeton-based project that evaluates a countrywide sample of college freshmen to try to explain minority underperformance in higher education.
In 2006, Ehrmann began his dissertation research, shadowing his old students throughout high school to try to understand the forces that aided and impeded their college preparedness.
“He was interested less in academia and more in applying sociological knowledge to improve educational outcomes in the real world,” Massey said of his former student. “He parlayed his intensive experience in Washington into a multi-message dissertation that included both qualitative and quantitative components as he followed the students in his original classroom up through their high school graduation to find out what happened to them, and to understand the roots of relative success and failure in the academic setting.”
However, Ehrmann’s research found that there wasn’t any difference in academic performance between those students who had received long-term scholarships and those who had not. These results, which Ehrmann believed demonstrated that giving students information about and funding for college was not enough to promote academic focus, inspired him to start Blue Engine.
“The motivation behind Blue Engine in part was a pretty sobering recognition that good intentions and good results are two very different things,” Ehrmann said. “We do a good job of selling kids on the dream of attending college, but a poor job on preparing them to succeed once they get there.”
Ehrmann founded Blue Engine in the belief that having BETAs help small groups of students could help achieve the former goal on a small scale. After Blue Engine’s first year of operation at WHEELS, the passing rate on the New York State Algebra Regents at the school increased from 72 percent of students to 89 percent of students, and the “College-Ready” rate — the number of students scoring 80 percent or above — increased from 15 percent to 44 percent. Ehrmann said that he is very satisfied with these results, and looks to build on them in the years to come.
Among the inaugural class of 12 BETAs were two Princetonians, Kevin Jeng ’10 and Frances deSaussure ’10. Jeng, an electrical engineering concentrator who plans to go to graduate school for material science in the near future, said he decided to apply for Blue Engine to explore an area outside his principal academic interests.
“I wasn’t particularly interested in education,” Jeng said. “But for me, this was a great opportunity, especially since I wanted to take a break from engineering and really clear my head.”
Though he may not be looking for a career in education, Jeng said, he enjoyed the experience enough to stay on for a second year, noting that seeing the students improve was very rewarding for him.
DeSaussure, on the other hand, applied to Blue Engine because she knew she wanted to work in education. A Wilson School concentrator, she wrote her senior thesis about charter schools in New Jersey. Like Jeng, she decided to stay on for a second year at Blue Engine.
“My experience was very rewarding, and the results were very successful for the first year and very promising for what could happen,” deSaussure said. She is currently deciding whether she wants to become a teacher or become a staff member at Blue Engine or another education nonprofit.
Throughout Blue Engine’s startup process, Ehrmann has found a constant source of support and inspiration from TFA, his alma mater organization. He also said he is happy to have studied at an institution with such a strong tradition in education reform and social entrepreneurship as Princeton, which houses the founding chapter of Students for Education Reform and has produced graduates such as Wendy Kopp ’89, TFA’s founder.
“I take very seriously the idea of working in the nation’s service, and it’s been an honor to follow in the footsteps of people like Wendy,” Ehrmann said.