By Nicholas Chan
I'm writing this from Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School (WHEELS), where our 12 inaugural Blue Engine Fellows are wrapping up their three-week training. The heat is sweltering on the non-air conditioned fourth floor of this public school building, but these folks are beyond intrepid.
Our 12 Fellows come from as far away as California (2,3), as nearby as Harlem and everywhere in between (Kentucky, Missouri, South Carolina, Ohio, Massachussetts, Pennsylvania (2), New Jersey). They turned down opportunities at Teach For America, law school, and the National Institute of Health to work for $1200 a month (before taxes) in the US's most expensive city. Their day starts at 7:30am when high school students roll into WHEELS (where 90% of the students are Dominican and 90% of students are eligible for free lunch), into the day, into afterschool programming, and into the night as they prepare for their next 7:30am day. Nearly 200 applicants applied for the Blue Engine Fellowship and after a lengthy, 3-part application process, these 12 Fellows will pioneer Blue Engine's first year.
Blue Engine's mission is to harness the power of national service to advance educational excellence and equity - to help all students, regardless of background or income level, be not just eligible to go to college, but ready to graduate from college on time. The Fellows are an integral part of this - as Integrated Algebra teaching assistants for all 8th and 9th grade students, they supplement the work of WHEELS teachers by helping smaller groups of students master the material. In the future, Blue Engine will expand to other subjects, grades, schools, and cities, but for now, the program centers on Integrated Algebra classrooms at WHEELS. Blue Engine's theory of change is based on evidence that the strongest predictor of college success is the academic rigor of one's high school program. You read that right - your high school program (especially Integrated Algebra, which often determines whether students continue in higher math) is key to determining your college future. Many of our youth enter college woefully underprepared. After struggling in remedial classes (where they receive no credit), many drop out, several thousand dollars in debt. Blue Engine, with the help of our Fellows, was founded to meet this challenge head on.
The last stanza of Shel Silverstein's poem "The Little Blue Engine" (where the organization gets its name) reads "if the track is rough and the hill is tough, thinking you can just ain't enough". Some interpret this line cynically, but Blue Engine believes it has a positive message. Rather than merely telling students they can succeed in college, hard work and preparation is required before they even set foot on a college campus.
School starts on September 8th. The Fellows have worked together for only a little over 3 weeks. But they are clearly up to the challenge of preparing the youth of WHEELS to succeed in Integrated Algebra and beyond. Follow their journey through our website and our Facebook page.