Future of Schools

Purdue is trying to upend the traditional high school model. Here’s what it looks like

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Phoenix Clark, right, is a freshman at Purdue Polytechnic High School. During his first project his team designed a filter to help clean the White River.

All it takes to know that Purdue Polytechnic High School is doing something different is a walk through the campus in the basement of a technology office building. Instead of sitting in classrooms, students are spread across an open room, talking with teachers on a sofa or working on quadratic equations at a table.

When it’s time to transition, there is no bell, but students and teachers quietly split up and head to their next appointments.

The unusual environment of the campus, however, is just the beginning of what is distinctive about the charter school, which opened this year and is already planning to expand across the state. The founders of Purdue Polytechnic are aiming to redesign high school with the ultimate, ambitious goal of creating a school that will prepare more students for degrees in science, technology, math, and engineering — particularly students of color and those from low-income families.

“Our belief is, we’ve been trying essentially the same system for years and years and years,” said head of school Scott Bess during at interview last fall. “We said, if we know that’s not working, let’s try something different.”

What the school’s founders settled on is radically different from a typical high school. Instead of traditional classes, students at Purdue work on a series of community-based projects throughout the year that aim to incorporate the skills Indiana high schoolers are supposed to learn. As they pursue projects, students interview strangers in the community, work with peers to hone their ideas, and eventually pitch their plans to business leaders.

Students still have assignments and tests to show they’ve mastered concepts such as conservation of energy or linear equations. But they also have a lot of freedom. Each week, they set their own schedules, and in addition to some regular classes, they spend hours working independently.

“We don’t think high school is something that should be endured,” Bess said in May. “It should inspire.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Students at Purdue Polytechnic High School choose their own schedules, and they spend lots of time working on their own.

As a charter school, Purdue Polytechnic is free for students who are admitted by lottery. The school started the year with about 150 freshmen, with an ultimate enrollment goal of 600 students. So far, the school, which is in the Indianapolis Public Schools innovation network, is diverse — the student body is about a third black, a third white, and a third Hispanic, Asian and multiracial. Teens from any school district can enroll, and the Purdue brand has attracted families from township and suburban districts.

Reagan Hubbard enrolled at the Purdue Polytechnic because her mom thought it would be a fit with her interest in engineering. Now, her parents drive her 45 minutes from Noblesville, and they plan on enrolling her sister next year.

“There are some things that are challenging, but it’s stuff that I like, like engineering,” Hubbard said. Since students have more freedom than at a traditional school, it’s especially important to be disciplined and avoid falling behind on your work, she said. “It’s very different.”

The model at Purdue Polytechnic High School is not only unusual but also relatively untested. The schools using similar methods, such as project-based and personalized learning, have not been studied enough to know whether they improve academic outcomes for students, said Laura Hamilton, a researcher at RAND Education.

Creating and sustaining a high-quality program that uses these approaches can be difficult because it requires skilled, committed educators, said Hamilton, who studies social and emotional skills and co-authored a recent report on a group of innovative high schools.

“Personally, I think that it’s worth trying these approaches because we know that traditional high schools are failing to serve a lot of our kids,” Hamilton said. “We need to understand whether other approaches could work.”

It will be years, though, before Purdue Polytechnic can be measured on its results. Since it is in its first year, there is no state test data, and it will be several years before students graduate and leaders learn whether their unusual approach prepares them for careers in science and technology.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Purdue Polytechnic High School freshman HannaMaria Martinez, right, works on quadratic equations with another student.

For many of the students, Purdue Polytechnic is a big adjustment from their traditional middle schools, where teachers typically told them exactly what to do each day.

“I like that no one is telling you what to do,” said HannaMaria Martinez, who went to Harshman Middle School in Indianapolis Public Schools. But that has its downsides. Martinez said she also wishes teachers were clearer about assignments. And she said other students can be loud and distracting.

Founded by Purdue University President Mitch Daniels, the former governor of Indiana and a high-profile national politician, the high school has been drawing headlines since it was announced three years ago. But most of that attention has focused on the school’s aim of preparing more students for the university, rather than the unusual academic approach.

As governor, Daniels was at the forefront of the national movement for test-based accountability and school choice, and during his administration, the state made the controversial move to take over several urban schools with chronically low grades from the state. Founding a school built around projects and student choice might seem like a notable departure. But Daniels’ newest effort at improving education mirrors a trend that is happening across the country.

Well-funded groups, including XQ Super School, are pushing the theory that high schools must be reimagined for the modern era. The aim is to create schools that not only give students the academic skills to succeed in college but also help them develop soft-skills. XQ selected Purdue Polytechnic as one of 18 XQ Super Schools, awarding the school a grant of $2.5 million over five years. (XQ is a project of the Emerson Collective, which is a funder of Chalkbeat through the Silicon Valley Community Foundation.)

More broadly, there’s a growing national focus on social and emotional skills, said Hamilton. “In some ways, it’s a little bit of a backlash to years of focusing on math and reading scores and a recognition that that’s not the only thing kids need to be successful.”

As Phoenix Clark worked on his first big project just six weeks into the school year, his enthusiasm was palpable. The challenge, which came from the Indianapolis Zoo, was to come up with ways to increase conservation efforts. Clark’s team was working on a robot that would filter river water.

Clark is interested in agriculture science, and he wanted to go to the high school as soon as he heard about it in a radio ad. He’s also the kind of teen who builds his own robots. It was one of those robots, he explained, that would pull the filter — made from materials like PVC pipe, foam, and cotton — down the White River.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
A robot made by Purdue Polytechnic High School student Phoenix Clark.

In the end, the filter system didn’t quite work out as he imagined. The team couldn’t come up with a way to waterproof the robot, so they settled on a slightly less ambitious plan: using a buoy to tow the filter. But Clark still feels like projects let them pursue “wild” ideas. Because students are pitching to actual companies such as IndyGo and the Indianapolis Star, he added, “they might actually go for it, which I really like.”

During another challenge to come up with a business idea for Subaru, Clark’s team earned second place schoolwide, he said. His team’s idea was to allow people who had dropped out to earn their high school equivalence while working for the automaker.

By the last few weeks of the year, however, the stress of Purdue Polytechnic was wearing on Clark. School work was usually relatively easy for him, he said. But using his time well and making sure he didn’t procrastinate on assignments was harder. He’d fallen behind early in the year, and he was struggling to make up work so he didn’t have to stay for summer school.

“At times I really question my work ethic,” Clark said. “But for sure, I think that’s what the school is meant for. It’s meant to push you. And I enjoy it so much.”

Over the course of the first year, students and staff at Purdue Polytechnic have been inventing a school as they go, said Drew Goodin, a lead teacher who focuses on design thinking. When it became clear that students were spending a lot of free time on games, for example, staff eventually chose to block certain websites.

Projects have also become more structured. Each project begins with “empathy,” a period when students are supposed to talk with people about the problem they are trying to solve. At first, Goodin said, students were left alone during that process. But it quickly became obvious that it wasn’t working. Experts on the subjects they were studying who came up high on internet search results were getting slammed with calls from students, lots of messages from student weren’t returned, and teachers weren’t involved enough to give students feedback.

So they reworked the system. Now, the school has organized empathy days, where staff bring people to the school or teens head out into the community for interviews, Goodin said.

“If our vision is truly being realized,” he said, “if you come in 10 years from now, we’ll still be making fine adjustments.”

Cut off

Michigan’s third-grade reading law could penalize bilingual programs

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Elementary schoolers in an English class at Academy of the Americas in Southwest Detroit. More than 70 percent of third-graders at the school could be held back starting in 2020.

The grocery store down the street from Academy of Americas blasts Mexican pop music over the radio. A few blocks away, a taco truck takes orders in English and Spanish. On the Academy’s playground, third-graders go about the business of play using whichever language happens to land on their tongues.

Back in the classroom, kindergartners learn to add, subtract, and find the United States on a map using Spanish. Third-graders sit through English class, then walk across the hall for science class with a teacher who addresses them only in Spanish.  The school, like the Southwest Detroit neighborhood that surrounds it, is truly bilingual, and it has the support of parents and experts who argue that “language immersion” at an early age helps English- and Spanish-speakers effectively learn two languages for the price of one.

But dual-language immersion programs like this one are about to run smack into a controversial state law. Beginning in 2020, third-graders at Academy of the Americas won’t be able to move on to the fourth grade until they pass a state reading exam — in English.

Critics have raised a wide range of questions about the 2016 law, which would have caused nearly half of Michigan students to be held back a grade if the law took effect last year.

But perhaps most puzzling is that a law designed to improve literacy in Michigan could penalize the small handful of programs with a track record of teaching students  — especially English learners — to read in not one, but two languages.

When 89 third-graders at the Academy took the test in 2016, only a single student met state standards. If the law had been in effect, almost every one would have repeated the third grade.

While the school is among the most highly sought programs in the district, the low reading scores were not terribly surprising. Kindergarten classes at the academy are conducted in Spanish for 90 percent of the school day. By the third grade, students hear  Spanish for 60 percent of the day. Experts in bilingual education say students in such programs typically fall behind their English-only peers in reading, then catch up around middle school.

But under state law, third-graders in Michigan’s roughly 10 bilingual programs could be held back anyway.

“I can’t wrap my head around it,” said Norma Hernandez, the district’s former director of the Office of Bilingual Education. “Our kids are going to be left behind.”

Academy of the Americas was founded by Hispanic parents determined to help their children hold on to their native language. Learning English, they knew, was both inevitable and necessary in the United States. But why couldn’t a school also help children master the language spoken at the family dinner table?

As it turns out, dual-immersion schools like the Academy are backed by solid research showing that students who learn more than one language from an early age tend to catch up to their monolingual peers in English reading. This holds true even for students who speak Spanish at home, and it also helps them maintain their native language. More than 1,000 similar programs are in place across the country.

“They’re learning to read and write in both languages,” said Cecilia Jungo, a parent at the school, speaking in Spanish. “They’re totally bilingual,” she added.

Earlier this month, folders were propped up on every desk in a third-grade social studies classroom at the Academy, forming a barrier in case students felt tempted to scan their neighbors’ tests. As some began to fidget, the teacher slipped in a vocabulary lesson.

“If you are already finished with the test,” she said, speaking in Spanish, “just put your head on the — what?”

“The table!” the students shouted — also in Spanish.

In the hallway outside, Principal Nicholas Brown said that this minilesson will eventually improve the students’ performance on language tests, in English as well as Spanish.

“We’re teaching kids to read and write,” he said. “When they learn to read in Spanish, they are able to transfer those skills to English, so that when English is introduced they’re able to attack it.”

He admits that this approach won’t pay dividends on English reading tests right away, but says they will catch up by middle school.

But this model of reading is “not the same theory that the lawmakers were adhering to when they developed the law,” said Paula Winke, a professor at Michigan State who studies bilingual education. Legislators pointed to a different body of research — studies showing that students who don’t learn to read English well by the third grade are less likely to graduate high school.

Both models may hold some truth, Winke said, but the law only makes room for one. The learning patterns of bilingual students, well-established by researchers, were apparently “not considered,” she added.  

Researchers at Michigan State are studying how the law will affect all students in immersion programs, including native English speakers. But they have already concluded that third-graders who speak English as a second language could be held back at disproportionate rates. According to Winke’s analysis of previous years’ test data, some 70 percent could be flunked.

Those projections are forcing dual-language programs to make tough decisions, especially when most of their students arrive in kindergarten speaking a language other than English.

Escuela Avancemos!, a charter school that stands only a few blocks from the Academy, offers some of its students a similar dual-language program. Kindergartners – most of whom speak Spanish at home — hear and speak Spanish for 90 percent of the school day. The proportion of English rises in each subsequent year.

But thanks to the reading law, that could change. “We’ve had to play around with those percentages,” Principal Sean Townsin told Chalkbeat during a school visit last month. “We’ve had to tweak it a little bit, especially in anticipation of the third-grade reading law.”

Townsin acknowledges that an extra hour or two of English instruction per day might not be enough to save his students from repeating the third grade. Last year, 39 of the 47 students tested in reading would have flunked. He also plans to assemble samples of students’ work, taking advantage of a section of the law that allows students to prove their reading ability to the state by submitting a portfolio instead of taking a test.

Brown, principal at the Academy, also plans to send portfolios to the state, but he won’t reduce the amount of Spanish students hear in class. He thinks the bilingual program is largely responsible for the school’s enrollment growth of 50 percent in the last two decades, no small accomplishment in a city where schools compete fiercely for students.

What’s more, he says parents would revolt if  he watered down the immersion program.

“At the end of the day, our parents are very clear” in their support for the program,” he explained. “The school was created as a direct response to a community need.”

The Academy was founded in 1992 by a group of Hispanic parents who wanted a school that wouldn’t alienate the children of Southwest Detroit from the language of their grandparents. They believed that hearing teachers and classmates speak Spanish would help students stay connected to their culture and make them more employable.

Brown, the son of a Venezuelan and a Louisianan, knew first-hand that in traditional schools, English can replace a student’s native language rather than complement it. He says he rejected Spanish as a teenager and refused to speak it for seven years, relenting only after a visit to Venezuela made clear that the language was a link to his family.

These days, when students say “hello” in the halls, he responds in Spanish.

But he knows that these students could soon pay a price for their bilingualism. Flunking a grade can have severe emotional consequences, and there is little evidence that repeating a grade is beneficial to a child’s learning in the long-run.

“If students are retained because they didn’t pass a reading test, that’s going to hinder their education,” said Diane Rodriguez, a professor at Fordham University who specializes in bilingual education. “If those legislators went to another country, and they were given three years to pass an exam in a second language, I’m wondering if they’d be able to pass it.”

Brown, for his part, is waiting for clarification about the law before it goes into effect in the 2019-2020 school year.

“I have more questions than answers,” he said, adding that he would like to see the law changed: “I hope the program will speak for  itself.”

Barring a change in course from the Legislature, his hopes rest with parents and with Superintendent Nikolai Vitti. Under the law, parents can request an exemption if their child fails the third-grade reading test, but the request must be approved by the superintendent for the child to move on to the next grade.

deysi martinez
PHOTO: Koby Levin
Deysi Martinez, president of the PTA at Academy of the Americas, says the state should test third-graders there in Spanish.

Parents at the Academy, however, argue that the state shouldn’t use its resources to grade student portfolios and process exemptions to the law.

Deysi Martinez, PTA president, noted that some states, like California and Colorado, allow students in immersion programs to prove their reading skills by taking additional reading tests in Spanish.

“In third grade, they’re reading mostly in Spanish,” she said of students at the Academy. “It doesn’t make sense for the test to be in English.”

Indiana's 2018 legislative session

What’s so hard about teaching ‘soft skills’? More than Indiana policymakers might think

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Students at Robey Elementary School in Wayne Township.

Indiana schools have a long list of specific topics students must learn about before they graduate that are enshrined in state law — the U.S. Constitution, the Holocaust, the effects of alcohol and drugs. Soon, “employability skills” will join them.

Also known as “soft skills” and “21st Century Skills,” these are the intangible abilities that students might be expected to have once they graduate from high schools, and they have been part of the school experience for decades. Sometimes the skills in question focus more on character or morality, while other times — especially in high schools — they focus on job-readiness. But they all boil down to figuring out how to teach students skills that are academics-adjacent and, often, hard to measure.

While schools have been trying to teach these skills for years, they have been highlighted recently by policymakers and employers as critical for post-high school success. But, education researchers and advocates worry, legislating these programs can be a challenge — and might not lead to noticeable changes.

“Good schools have always done this,” said Andrew Rotherham, co-founder of Bellwether Education Partners, a national nonprofit that advocates for school choice. “But what often happens is it’s just one more thing that people have to do, and they end up checking that box.”

Under a law that passed this past spring with broad bipartisan support, all schools will have to incorporate these skills into their lessons beginning in 2019. The law comes as Indiana policymakers have made a big push to encourage “college- and career-readiness,” an education buzzword that has permeated conversations about recently adopted graduation requirements and city-led college access projects.

The bill itself is vague and says schools have to teach these skills across all subjects and occasionally create activities or special events on career awareness and development. The topics to be taught are specific to grade levels, spanning “basic employment concepts,” choosing careers based on interests and skills, job or higher education counseling, hands-on experiences, and workplace visits.

There is no method laid out for measuring schools’ performance or assessing the material.

The idea for the bill came from Indiana State Board of Education member David Freitas, who has long lobbied for such policies. The message could be as broad as encouraging conscientiousness and punctuality or as specific as teachers greeting each student in the morning with a firm handshake.

“These are core foundational skills that every person should have,” Freitas said. “It’s relevant today, it was relevant yesterday, and it’s going to be relevant tomorrow.”

The model that Indiana schools will have to eventually follow first requires the Indiana Department of Education to create employability skill standards, which the state board will eventually have to approve.

State officials won’t necessarily be starting from scratch — The U.S. Department of Education has developed an outline for teaching these skills and resources for schools, such as a checklist of academic and critical thinking skills that can be used to build lessons.

Indiana’s biggest challenges likely will be rolling the policy out in a way that ensures these skills are actually taught, taught well, and don’t become an “unfunded mandate.”

Jonathan Plucker, a professor and researcher at Johns Hopkins University who studies education policy and talent development, whose work has centered on designing assessments to measure topics like creativity and collaboration, said requiring schools to teach the skills can be a bigger obstacle than states realize.

“We don’t have great assessments for a lot of these things, so it is difficult to gauge whether you are doing a good job teaching students,” Plucker said. “There’s nothing in here about accountability, reporting, monitoring or assessment, and that’s how we ensure policies get enacted. You would never write a tax bill without any of those things.”oh

Plucker also thinks schools need to think long-term about what skills students may need in the future, not preparing them for the current job market.

“It would be much more powerful to take the longer-haul view of how are we educating them for the jobs of tomorrow, like where are we working in creativity and communication skills, collaboration skills?” Plucker said. “How are we helping them prepare for the jobs that we know are going to be the vast majority of career opportunities when they get out?”

Some schools already have programs in place. At Robey Elementary School in Wayne Township, their version of a soft skills program has focused on positive behavior. As the Robey Rockets, their motto is “BLAST” — Be Respectful, Lifelong learning, Active listening, Safety, Taking responsibility.

Most schools in the district have something similar, Principal Ben Markley said. The Garden City Gators have the three Gs, while the Bridgeport Knights have an “ARMOR” shield. In other districts, such as Franklin Township, South Creek Elementary School uses “GREAT” to encourage Generosity, Respect, Effort, positive Attitude, and Trustworthiness. It might seem simple, but Markley said he’s noticed its effects.

“You’ve got to have a common language,” Markley said. “When students go to physical education class or to art or to music … having a framework that they can count on, that they can improve upon over time, it is something that makes a difference for our kids.”

It’s unclear how much implementing the program will cost. Fiscal analysts from the Legislative Services Agency said the provisions in Senate Bill 297 would increase work for state education department employees, as well as districts carrying out another piece of the legislation — the Work Ethic Certificate program. The program is currently being tried out in 18 districts, and it partners districts and local employers together to create a credential students can earn if they demonstrate employability skills while in high school.

The Department of Workforce Development has issued grants to districts to support their work, but this year’s bill didn’t include any additional funding to expand the work ethic certificate program. It’s possible that could come next year, when lawmakers meet to craft the state’s next two-year budget.

Freitas said he’s really excited to see the plans take shape, and he knows some schools might already be working on these skills without the state requiring it. He said it’s not necessary that they hire any special teachers — it’s about focusing on the lessons and working soft skills into what’s already being taught.

“I see it embedded within the curriculum,” Freitas said. “Ten years from now, I think it’s important for everyone to be respectful to each other, civil to each other. So it has nothing to do with, ‘are they skills for the future’ — yeah, they are skills for the future. They are not going to change.”