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Blue Engine has centered equity as critical to their mission since the founding. Throughout the organization’s growth, however, Blue Engine has experienced an evolution of their values around equity, and expanded to thinking critically about diversity and inclusion as well. We follow this organization’s powerful journey in navigating these challenging questions, and their direct and significant impact on Blue Engine’s identity and work.
Curious about what’s happened since the moment in time of this case study? Watch our webinar with leaders from Blue Engine and the co-authors of the cases here!
Blue Engine partners with schools to unlock human potential.
“We support teams of teachers working in historically oppressed communities to reimagine the classroom experience for all students.”
Their model is based on a core belief that teams can enable outcomes that individuals alone can’t achieve. Blue Engine believes that when teachers work together on a team, they have more capacity and ability to connect with all students and provide instruction based on students’ needs. Classrooms become places where students thrive academically and are seen and heard.
Blue Engine’s vision is that by 2040, the public education system has “integrated mindsets, practices, and structures such that multiple adult classrooms are serving the needs of all students, creating a more just and inclusive education system.”
Blue Ridge Foundation in Brooklyn issues grant to launch Blue Engine
First employee hired
First team teaching pilot launched in one school in Washington Heights with 200 students and 12 Blue Engine Teaching Apprentices (BETAs).
15-20 core staff and ~80 BETAs
BE worked with ~1,900 students in 24 classrooms across nine school partners.
20 Core staff.
Over the past nine years, Blue Engine has developed a research-based team teaching model. Working in partnership with teachers, coaches, and school administrators, Blue Engine “builds the capacity of teachers and schools to create structures and implement research-based practices that leverage multiple adults. In turn, students have access to supportive and challenging classroom experiences that affirm who they are and meet their unique learning needs.” Blue Engine’s goal is to “create conditions where true differentiation exists for ALL learners in a classroom by leveraging the power of multiple adults in each classroom.”
Blue Engine’s AmeriCorps model places AmeriCorps service members — Blue Engine Teaching Apprentices (BETAs) — alongside lead teachers on classroom-based teaching teams.
Blue Engine’s co-teaching model supports existing teams of co-teachers in schools.
Students in Blue Engine classrooms are demonstrating significant academic gains in one year.
90% of students in Blue Engine classrooms report a positive experience.
70% of lead teachers believe working with Blue Engine improved their perspective about what is possible for student academic achievement.
It was spring 2015, and Blue Engine was facing a moment of reckoning.
New Chief Operating Officer Anne Eidelman — now CEO — joined the 22-person team for an all-staff meeting. Erick Roa, then Site Director, spoke up. He named something he and others had mentioned before: The way Blue Engine measured outcomes for kids was warping incentives for their classroom teams.
“I was pushing back on some of the practices we had — we were specifically told to focus on students who were in the middle and high areas, on the cusp of passing exams or going to college, and the kids who didn’t have a chance, as perceived by the data, were not a priority.”
As a man of color who grew up in New York City public schools, Erick had lived experiences similar to those of the students Blue Engine served. He elevated two pushes: that Blue Engine’s approach wasn’t inclusive of all kids, and that they were perhaps systematically excluding the students who would most benefit from Blue Engine’s services. He then said something that stopped the team in their tracks:
“If I had been a student in a Blue Engine classroom, I would have been overlooked.”
The way Anne remembers it, they had a choice in that moment — to speed past the discomfort in the air and get back to the planned agenda, or to pause and dig in. The staff chose the latter, breaking into two groups to share, ask questions, and process what this critical observation meant for Blue Engine as an organization. “We had to look ourselves in the mirror and realize that despite our best intentions and articulated beliefs, we were perpetuating some of the oppressive systems that we were trying to break,” Anne describes. Grappling with this realization brought the group a mixture of frustration, anger, confusion, defensiveness, guilt, and shame. Blue Engine founder Nick Ehrmann was in the room, and he remembers the moment similarly.
“Maybe we never would have gotten to where we got [without his voice]. People — not me, frankly — who recognized and acted on their instincts were extremely instrumental. Do we serve some kids or all kids? Period. Depending on our answer to that, we need to tell the world, ‘Hold us accountable for this.’ It was this spectacular and really complex, open discussion...that spilled into an org-wide reconstitution.”
Blue Engine was founded by Nick Ehrmann, a former Washington, D.C. teacher who began his career with Teach For America. Nick’s doctoral program in sociology provided a researcher’s lens through which he viewed questions of diversity, inclusion, and equity, and he wrote a dissertation exploring “the negative effects of academic underperformance on the transition from high school to college.”
When he founded Blue Engine in 2010, Nick says he had an academic understanding of systemic racism and the issues his colleagues of color were raising:
“I think that there’s a certain level of safe distance that I was afforded by having what I thought to be a very good academic sense of what we were talking about...I’ve been exposed to a lot of conceptual underpinnings of institutional racism...I wrote my senior thesis in undergrad about white supremacy and had already been through a really long, very personal journey away from the sort of toxic ideas around a savior complex...One of the blindspots is that somehow that inoculates leadership from the lived experiences of people who work there.”
The work for Nick and Blue Engine has been in part about going beyond an intellectual conception of power, privilege, and racial identity. This growth involves unpacking dimensions of cultural identity and listening to the lived experiences of people of color — in both the organization and the classroom — and codifying those lessons into bedrock guiding principles.
In Blue Engine’s nine years as an organization, they’ve experienced some profound moments of shifting culture, which only intensified in that 2015 all-staff moment of reckoning. What were some major themes and lessons up to that point and in the years since?
We’ll explore each of these themes in greater depth based on what we heard from Blue Engine.
Given these lessons and the progress Blue Engine has made over the past few years in their DEI journey, what is the organization focused on next?
Blue Engine has continued to work on culture-building and has focused on incorporating DEI explicitly into their strategic plan. This summer, the team retook the Promise54 DEI Staff Experience Survey to see whether there were any changes resulting from their recent work. The results? The organization is moving in a positive direction:
Several of Blue Engine’s measures, including their Net Promoter Score, increased considerably since their last survey administration:
At the same time, the survey highlighted challenges in sustaining the amount of reflective training and dialogues staff once engaged in:
The survey results are informing Blue Engine’s people approach moving forward:
“We are wholly committed to creating an equitable and inclusive environment that attracts and retains a diverse team that thrives and maximizes Blue Engine’s impact for students across the country. We will invest in our people, culture, and systems to create an environment where people want to stay and grow.”
And in 2019-20, Blue Engine will develop their first-ever multi-year DEI plan, including goals, strategies, and concrete actions they’ll take to advance their overall mission.
As the team sees a positive trend in staff experience, Blue Engine is still grappling with a number of questions, including:
All in all, Anne acknowledges the nonlinear route Blue Engine has taken:
“It’s not a smooth thread. When I look back four and a half years ago, the staff has changed, the spaces we create have changed...There’s more to do, but [we’ve made] more space to practice radical empathy and show up for kids and [for our]selves in a different way.”