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.”

School funding

Poll: Most residents want Michigan to change the way it funds schools

PHOTO: (Photo by Ariel Skelley via Getty Images)
Members of the School Finance Research Collaborative are calling for equitable school funding so all Michigan students get the education they deserve.

Most Michigan residents believe the state’s current method of funding schools is both insufficient and unfair.

Those were the findings of a new statewide poll that was conducted in June by the School Finance Research Collaborative, a prominent group of Michigan educators, policymakers, and business leaders that has called for major changes to the way schools are funded.

The poll of 600 Michigan residents found that 70 percent believe the state’s schools are underfunded, and 63 percent think they are not funded fairly.

“The results of the poll should really be a wake-up call for policymakers on both sides of the aisle, and to anyone seeking elected office,” said Wanda Cook-Robinson, a School Research Collaborative member and superintendent of Oakland Schools. “They need to listen to the Michiganders and use the school finance research collaborative study as a road map for a new, fair schools funding system.”

The poll follows a report the collaborative released in January, which recommended sweeping changes to the way schools in Michigan are funded. Instead of sending schools the same amount per student, the report recommended providing schools with additional funds for students who are learning English, living in poverty or facing other challenges.

The group spent nearly two years and about $900,000 producing the report but it did not get much immediate response from Lansing. The education budget signed by Gov. Rick Snyder this summer included increases to school funding, but made no changes to the funding formula.

Michael Addonizio, a professor of Education Policy Studies at Wayne State University and a member of the collaborative, said the poll offers another reason why lawmakers should pay attention to the issue.

“It’s time for a new school funding system that meets the unique, individual needs of all students, whether they are enrolled in special education, living in poverty, English language learners, and [whether] students attend school in geographically isolated areas of the state,” he said.

Details about the survey including the specific questions asked are below.

Listening Tour 2018

5 bold ideas for how Chicago can send more kids through college

PHOTO: Elaine Chen
Chalkbeat Chicago sat down with educators and OneGoal staff as part of our series of listening tours throughout the city

It takes resilience and a lot of support to launch students on the path to college, let alone get through Year One.

“Students trying alone to make it is not going to work,” said Kate Kaushal, a counselor at Phillips Academy High School in Bronzeville. “It takes a village.”

In a conversation on Tuesday, educators, Chalkbeat reporters and editors, and staff from the nonprofit OneGoal brainstormed ways to marshal that village to guide more students in Chicago’s neighborhood schools toward college and careers. As the sixth stop of Chalkbeat’s summer listening tour, the two-hour discussion took place at the Loop office of OneGoal, which offers one-on-one coaching to help low-income high school students transition to college.

The discussion covered many of the challenges schools face, from keeping students moving forward during their “sophomore slump,” to conquering the complexity of college applications and financial aid forms — and, moving beyond, to keeping students in college once they get there.  In 2016, 66 percent of CPS high school graduates enrolled in two- or four-year colleges. But of district students who had enrolled in college in 2011, only 57 percent graduated by spring 2016.

Tuesday’s group shared ideas that are working — and even came up with other bold ones that could catch on. Here are five ideas that came out of our conversation:

1. Build out a system of post-secondary “help desks” in libraries and public spaces

Sharon Thomas Parrott suggested instituting “help desks” to support high school students in navigating financial aid

Problem: The variations among applications for colleges and trade programs is mind-boggling,  even for adults, said Kaushal of Phillips Academy.: “Each college has a different process, and a different portal, and students get frustrated when applying.”

Solution: Sharon Thomas Parrott, an ex-officio member of One Goal’s Board of Directors who began her career as a CPS teacher, proposed a network of community “help desks” that could help students review options and navigate applications and federal financial aid forms. “How do we support schools and provide counseling opportunities without counselors?” she asked rhetorically. Help desks with services in English and Spanish would also help make the process more accessible to parents and guardians.

2. Financial aid navigators accessible to high school students throughout the city, either at schools or through organizations

Problem: College has become astronomically expensive. It’s great to encourage students to pursue higher education, “but don’t sugarcoat it either,” said Andrew Nelson, a humanities teacher at Multicultural Academy of Scholarship High School in South Lawndale. However, reality can also discourage families.

Solution: Alejandro Espinoza, OneGoal Chicago’s director of secondary partnerships,  suggested that the city or schools can provide financial aid navigators to help families figure out how much schools cost, what financial aid is available, and how loans figure into the picture. “Parents won’t take a risk if they don’t know this information.”

3. Start the post-secondary conversation earlier

Mary Beck, principal of Senn High School, emphasized the importance of Freshman Connection for getting incoming students on track for high school graduation

Problem: Many students don’t enter high school with thoughts about what they’ll do afterward, and may not think about them until junior year, when their options — such as entering into a trade or a college — become limited because they lack required courses and credits.

Solution: Mary Beck, the principal of Senn High School in Edgewater, said that her school has placed much emphasis on Freshman Connection, a program that gets incoming students acquainted with staff and graduation requirements before the school year starts. At Senn, the goal is to get students on track to graduate before they even show up for Day One of high school. “It’s setting yourself up so that you have options,” she said. “They have to be prepared to apply for a four-year college even if they don’t ultimately go.”

4. Focus on individual students once they get to college

Problem: Students who make it to college don’t always stay there. Beyond academics, it can be challenging to deal with a new environment, cost, and even culture. Adults often tell students that once they’re in college ‘you’re going to be an adult, no one is going to hold your hand,’ said Kaushal, “but sometimes someone still needs to hold their hand.”

Solution: Thomas Parrott said that colleges or external programs could provide counselors who sit down with incoming college students and looking at what classes they’ll take in freshman year, as those grades set the foundation for the students’ trajectories in college. Kaushal added that guidance needs to continue in college. While organizations such as OneGoal provide one-on-one coaching for college freshmen, she said that continued coaching will help ensure students ultimately graduate.

5. Students need to see success stories

Problem: Students sense challenges facing their family, neighborhood and city all the time. They need to hear stories of resilience — and see exactly how kids who look like them persevered.

Solution: OneGoal Director of External Affairs Chloe Lahre said that mentors, connected through a robust directory of program alumni, could offer practical advice and encouragement. Nelson of Multicultural Academy suggested more stories in the media about students overcoming setbacks. It would be helpful, he said, “seeing people who have had similar experiences and seeing what their story is like.”

In our listening tours, we’ve gathered parents, community groups, students, and educators to discuss pressing issues in Chicago education. Our seventh event, in partnership with City Bureau, is next Thursday, August 23. It is open to the public.