In his 20s, as a Teach for America fellow in a Washington, D.C., classroom, Nick Ehrmann, found himself reading Shel Silverstein’s poem “The Little Blue Engine,” which satirizes the well-known kid’s story of the Little Engine That Could who repeats, “I think I can, I think I can,” to power its way up a steep hill. In Silverstein’s version, instead of reaching the summit, the train slips backwards and crashes: “If the track is tough and the hill is rough, / thinking you can just ain’t enough!” the poet writes. Ehrmann took the lesson to heart and, after completing graduate work in sociology at Princeton, founded the educational nonprofit Blue Engine, its name a nod to the poem.
As CEO, Ehrmann takes the hard look at the shortcomings in our nation’s secondary schools, rejects pat inspirational messages and instead provides students with critical support to succeed in higher education. Blue Engine’s most important innovation is the introduction of teaching assistants (known as BETAs), mostly recent college grads, in the classroom. By breaking up large classes into small groups, teaching assistants personalize lessons for class performance and learning styles. With 89 BETAs in seven schools today, the program has been shown to nearly double the number of college-ready students — a 73 percent increase at three schools, according to New York’s 2013-14 Regents test data — and cut the number of failing students by one third.
On a recent weekday morning, Ehrmann, wearing a scarf against the 34-degree chill, plopped down at a table at Au Bon Pain in Lower Manhattan’s Financial District. NationSwell spoke to him about rethinking the education sector, leadership and fatherhood.
What’s the best advice you have ever been given on leadership?
There’s an expression that we have here that we have to earn the right to do this work. I think there’s a pervasive illusion that the fact that you have good intentions is going to lead to positive outcomes. And in actuality, it can lead to feelings of entitlement and arrogance and a lack of partnerships — true partnerships — in the communities in which we work. So from the minute we step foot into the office or to a school or to a classroom and sit across the table from a young person, who are we to say that we deserve to be there? We have to earn the right to be there in the eyes of young people, teachers, parents and each other. That’s number one. It feels like that’s the most grounding way to honor the work and not lose sight of what’s most important, which is achieving results.

Nick Ehrmann (far right) stands with President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama at the College Opportunity Summit in Washington, D.C., Jan. 16, 2014.

What innovations in your field are you most excited about right now?
Number one is broadening the evidence base in how we define success, continuing to embrace academic achievement outcomes, but also incorporating measures of student growth, social-emotional learning, learning climate and the ways that schools can and must nurture the growth of young people more holistically. Students aren’t just data points. They’re people, and I think we’re seeing a really reductionist narrowing of what success means into standardized test scores at the expense of things that help young people grow and learn and develop independently in their lives. I think the pendulum is swinging back.
What’s currently on your nightstand?
Dude, I have like 5,000 books. Hmm…
What’s your favorite movie of all-time?
I have three boys under five [years of age]…we’re watching “Cars 2” and “Wall-E” for the 14th time, and actually, I just watched the Star Wars trilogy — the original three — with my four-year-old, and he was glued to the set. It’s just amazing.
What’s your biggest need right now?
Sleep! No, I think I’ve got it: a relaxation of the assumption individual organizations can or should scale to solve social problems alone and to encourage the essential forms of collaboration in systemic partnerships, where the most promising organizations become part of a much broader theory of change in how problems get solved. Look at Malaria No More, for example. There was no single organization that would have set themselves up to become the global malaria response. Too often, I think, entrepreneurs face pressure to scale to the size of the problem alone.
What inspires you?
Working with an incredible team. Having the chance to be part of an organization that sees the strengths in young people, instead of their weaknesses and deficits, and builds from that strength without taking credit for it. And the sliver of possibility that this work is going to have a dramatic impact on how students learn across the country.
In turn, how do you try to inspire others?
It’s easy to lose sight of what drives us and unites us as an organization, when the work itself is so hard. And part of my role is to consistently hold that vision and sense of possibility, just grounded in young people, to hold that front and center, so we can recharge.
What’s your perfect day?
I thrive on routine. I’m just going to describe my current day. A perfect day: I’d say it starts with not waking up three times in the middle of the night, step one. Step two: Cook breakfast for my boys. Get in a quick run in Central Park. It’s equal parts being in the field at schools and managing teams. Getting home in time so that Annie [my wife] and I could put the boys to bed. And eking out 36 minutes of “Homeland,” before I fall asleep on the couch. #LivingTheDream.
What don’t most people know about you that they should?
I was a musician for most of my life. I come from a family of musicians. I play cello, so I grew up doing classical and jazz ensemble work most of my life. I miss it. That would be part of my perfect day, if I had the time. I started around [the age of] four and put it down in my early 20s.
What do you wish someone had told you when you started this work?
To not to apologize for thinking big. And to not allow caution or fear to limit people’s sense of what’s possible.
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This article has been edited and condensed.