assisted learning

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

Blue Engine Teaching Assistant Alexandra DiAddezio helps 10th-grade geometry students Kelvin Perez, 15, Oliver Batlle, 15, and Ian Smith, 14, with a project.

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.”


Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”

moving forward

After Confederate flag dispute at Colorado football game, schools pledge to bring students together

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual High students.

Acknowledging “we may never have a conclusive picture of what happened,” two Colorado school districts sought to move past a controversy over whether a Confederate flag was displayed at a football game and open a conversation between the two school communities.

The principal of Manual High, Nick Dawkins, wrote in a community letter over the weekend that the visiting Weld Central High School team “displayed a Confederate flag during the first quarter of the (Friday night) game, offending many members of the Manual community.”

Officials from Denver Public Schools and Weld County School District Re-3J released a joint letter Tuesday saying that based “on what we have learned to date, however, the Weld Central team did not display the Confederate flag.” At the same time, it said, multiple Manual eyewitnesses “reported seeing spectators who attempted to bring a Confederate flag into the game and clothing with flag images.”

Going forward, students from the two schools — one rural and one urban — will participate in a student leadership exchange that has student leaders visit each other’s schools and communities to “share ideas and perspectives,” the letter says.

“At a time in our country when so many are divided, we want our students instead to come together, share ideas and learn together,” says the letter, which is signed by the principals of both schools and the superintendents of both school districts.

The alleged incident took place at a time when issues of race, social injustice, politics and sports are colliding in the United States, making for tough conversations, including in classrooms.

Weld Central’s mascot is a Rebel. Manual, whose mascot is the Thunderbolts, is located in one of Denver’s historically African-American neighborhoods.

Dawkins in his initial community letter also said “the tension created by the flag led to conflict on and off the playing field,” and that three Manual players were injured, including one who went to the hospital with a leg injury. He also said some Manual players reported that Weld Central players “taunted them with racial slurs.”

Weld Central officials vehemently denied that their team displayed the flag. In addition, they said in their own community letter they had “no evidence at this point that any of our student athletes displayed racially motivated inappropriate behavior.”

They said district officials “do not condone any form of racism,” including the Confederate flag.

Weld Central fans told the Greeley Tribune that they didn’t see any Confederate flag.

Read the full text below.