Experiment in "high-dose" tutoring takes shape in city schools

How does the shape of a polygon change as one of its angles widens? What is an “acute angle”? Do you need help using a protractor?

These are questions Aisha Chappell wishes she could individually ask each of her 33 tenth-grade geometry students when they split into small groups to perform a hands-on project about angles and symmetry.

In the past, it would have been a challenge for Chappell to circle her classroom at the Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School and address each of her students’ needs during individual or group work time. But this year Chappell has three teaching assistants to navigate the room with her.

The teaching assistants come through a year-old nonprofit called Blue Engine, which trains recent college graduates to help teachers push their students with more personalized attention. Founder Nick Ehrmann, who previously taught through Teach for America and founded a youth mentoring nonprofit, conceived of Blue Engine as a strategy to address a major problem identified in high-performing high schools: that too many students graduate from high school and start college, but founder once they get there.

One theory, held by KIPP charter school officials and others, is that “no excuses”-style schools need to do a better job of teacher character traits, such as resilience, that successful college students possess. Ehrmann has a different theory: The students simply need to learn more in high school.

“The strongest predictor in completion of college is the academic rigor of your high school coursework,” he said, citing research from the National Center for Educational Statistics.

That’s where Blue Engine’s 26 teaching assistants, known in the classroom as “BETAs,” come in. In addition to overseeing the small groups, they also support the full-time teaching staff by grading assignments and identifying and analyzing trends in student work. All of this amounts to what Ehrmann calls “high-dose tutoring.”

“This is rigor in two ways: First, we’re actually pushing the boundaries of creativity and of effort and of engagement in students’ minds,” he said. “The second is making sure a school offers more opportunities for rigorous coursework for groups of students.”

When Oliver Batlle, 15, felt too shy to speak during Chappell’s geometry class on a recent morning, he had four teachers to prod him instead of just one. “You know the answer!” Alexandra DiAddezio, one of the teaching assistants, said from over his shoulder, as Chappell paused to wait for him to speak.

The teacher and assistants in this classroom, and in an English classroom down the hall with a similar arrangement, routinely play off of each other to encourage student participation, particularly when an answer requires some discussion.

After math class, Oliver said he welcomes the regular attention from DiAddezio and the other assistant when he gets distracted or has trouble finding the right words to answer a question about the relationship between angles in a polygon: “It’s good for me, it’s the only way I’m going to get over that.”

Chappell said the assistants are able to offer students like Oliver help in ways she can’t while leading the classroom.

“The old adage is two heads are better than one — in this case, it’s three,” she said. The assistants “are able to know where the students are at, when it’s impossible for me to know where all 30 students are at at the end of the day. This makes it much easier and faster to catch those kids who are not understanding or not on task.”

Chappell also said the teaching assistants have made it easier for her to roll out a new curriculum that requires students to work extensively in small groups, which can be harder to supervise. By putting each teaching assistant in charge of one or two groups of students while they work together, she said, the students who struggle can receive extra attention, and the ones who have a tendency to zone-out during a lesson are more likely to stay on task.

Brett Kimmel, WHEELS’ principal, said the Blue Engine tutors are already having an effect. Last spring, after piloting the program in two math classrooms, nearly 187 percent more 9th-graders from WHEELS took and passed the integrated algebra Regents exam with a score of at least 80 or higher—considered the threshold for “college readiness.” Some 8th-graders also took and passed the exam for the first time last year with “college-ready” scores.

This year, Blue Engine placed BETAs in English classes as well — and in two other schools, Mott Hall Bronx High School and the Urban Assembly School for Green Careers. It is also continuing to refine its model, Ehrmann said: Last year, he originally placed six assistants in each room but found that the large group overwhelmed the lead teachers.

Though the program is still very much in the testing stage, Ehrmann said Blue Engine should be able to function in diverse school environments, even with teachers who might be making rigor a priority in their classrooms.

“We believe Blue Engine can work in all schools. There’s such a level of support that teachers of all stripes say they’re thrilled to have the help,” he said.

Sara Batke, an English teacher at WHEELS, said she initially balked at the notion of sharing her classroom with even three other teachers, but the gains she saw students make in their math classes across the hall convinced her that it would be worth the extra effort.

“I thought, I’ve been alone by myself teaching high school English for 9 years, and I really love it and it’s going really well,” she said. “But this pushes me to be a better teacher because I have to be well planned. Even if it takes me a little bit longer to make a lesson because I have to explain it to the [teaching assistants], that just directly translates to results.”

WHEELS will measure the success of Blue Engine’s presence in part by the number of 10th grade students who are able to take and pass the English Regents exam, which is typically given in 11th grade, with a score of 80 or better, Kimmel said.

The program may also benefit the school system by acting as a training ground for would-be teachers, particularly at a time when first-year teaching positions in New York City are hard to come by. It’s also one of an increasing number of efforts to ease teachers in to the classroom with fewer responsibilities than a full-time teacher.

Blue Engine tutors receive a school-year stipend of just $14,400 — about $30,000 less than a first-year teacher takes home  — plus health insurance and a monthly Metrocard. Ehrmann said he has intentionally kept costs low so that schools, which pick up 20 percent of the bill for the BETAs, can afford the tutors. Americorps, the national service program, covers another 35 percent of the program’s budget, and donors fill in the rest.

Even with the low pay, Blue Engine had no trouble bringing on graduates of top-flight colleges, Ehrmann said. The program accepted just 8 percent of applicants this year.

“The surprising story here is how many people are out there who are extraordinary and will add value to schools who are not being engaged right now—we’re turning away qualified applicants,” he said. “There’s no other channel for them to serve.”

Juan Hollomon, 23, said Teach for America recommended him for Blue Engine after he was rejected by the competitive program, which places recent college graduates in public schools. He’s now in his second year at WHEELS.

Hollomon said he looks at Blue Engine as an opportunity to get practice working as a teacher in the New York City school system without having the same responsibilities of a teacher tasked with leading an entire classroom by himself.

“What caught my eye with Blue Engine was that I knew that if I did TFA I would not be prepared in six weeks to be in charge of the classroom,” seconded Alison Fedyna, 24, another assistant. “With Blue Engine I can focus on one subject, and If I decide to lead teach next year I’ll be really prepared.”