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.”

Voter guide

7 questions Chicagoans should ask their aldermanic candidates about schools

PHOTO: Michal Czerwonka

Big education policy questions about school board control, charter expansion and struggling neighborhood schools have surfaced repeatedly in the race for Chicago mayor. But the city’s aldermanic races, on the whole, tend to be less focused on schools, because some voters don’t connect aldermen to education decisions in their community.

But while aldermanic power is limited when it comes to schools, those officials can still play an important role at Chicago Public Schools and in their wards, as we detailed here.

Here are seven questions and background on them that education-focused voters can ask their aldermanic candidates.

What do you see as the role of an alderman when it comes to Chicago Public Schools?

Legally speaking, alderman don’t have much power over the school district or schools in their ward. They can’t set budgets, hire or fire principals, or decide whether schools open or close. But that doesn’t mean they’re powerless. A dedicated and concerned alderman can do a lot as an advocate for schools.

Related: Chicago alderman have limited power over public schools — but can still play an important role

What do you know about the schools in your ward?

This question can measure how well a candidate or incumbent has engaged with and assessed the needs of area schools. You can’t expect someone to start cooking solutions for area schools if they lack the basic ingredient of familiarity.

How will you spend your aldermanic “menu” money?

Every year, the city gives each alderman a $1.32 budget for infrastructure improvements, known as aldermanic menu money. The ward bosses have discretion over what projects they use it for. Some have tapped the funds for school improvements.  

How will you work to strengthen Local School Councils?

Without an elected school board, the councils are some of the only ways parents and community members can participate in decision-making about their schools. The councils drive school improvement plans, set budgets, and evaluate and hire (or fire) principals. But participation is notoriously low and uneven across the district.

How would you respond to a proposal for a new charter school in your ward?

Aldermen can’t force the school board’s hand on decisions about whether or not to approve charter proposals, but they can express their wishes to the mayor’s office and school board. They also can make it difficult for charters to open in their ward if the charter needs a zoning change to move into or build a new facility.

How will you help attract local families to neighborhood schools losing enrollment?

A district report released in December identifies 238 “underenrolled” schools in Chicago. Many of them are neighborhood schools that serve students living within their attendance boundaries.

How would you help make your ward a place where families with school-aged children want and can afford to live?

Housing costs are one of many reasons families have been leaving Chicago, and a lack of affordable housing in a community could pose a barrier to families with children moving there. Getting a sense of your alderman’s housing policies and approaches to affordability will help discern priorities and seriousness about helping families afford living in your community.

big plans

Four things you should know about the new Memphis plan to expand district support to all schools

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

Shelby County Schools board members heard an ambitious plan Tuesday to expand district support for students across all its nearly 150 schools.

The proposal would reorganize the district’s flagship turnaround program, the Innovation Zone; test all first-graders for gifted education; give hand-held electronic devices to more high school students; and offer more advanced courses. The recommendations are the first from the district’s new chief academic officer, Antonio Burt, who was appointed in September.

“We’re really focused on system-wide equity,” he said. “We can really switch the conversation from equity to really focusing on equity in action.”

In recent years, Memphis has become a model in Tennessee’s school turnaround efforts. But district officials believe Shelby County Schools has not effectively scaled those lessons up to impact more students more quickly. Burt said his plan will fill in those gaps.

Burt did not break down how much these initiatives would cost, but incoming interim superintendent Joris Ray said the proposals would anchor the district’s budget priorities for the 2019-20 school year.

Here is what you need to know:

All first-grade students would be tested to see if they are eligible for CLUE, the district’s gifted education program.

Currently, teachers pick students to be tested for admittance into a program that promotes higher-level grade work for students from preschool to high school.

Burt said the way students are chosen has led to wide disparities in the racial makeup of the program. Though white students make up 7 percent of the district’s population, they make up 38 percent of the students in CLUE. Black students make up 77 percent of the district’s enrollment, but 45 percent of students in the program.

Nationally, black students are far less likely to be placed in gifted programs, even if they have the same test scores as their white peers, and especially if their teacher is white, according to a 2016 study at Vanderbilt University.

For the first time, all Memphis schools identified by the state as low performing will get additional money.

Eleven schools will be added to the district’s Innovation Zone, known for improving test scores.

The iZone pumps about $600,000 per school for teacher bonuses, for more resources to combat the effects of poverty, and for principals to have more say over which teachers they hire.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Antonio Burt became assistant superintendent in 2017 over the Innovation Zone and other struggling schools within Shelby County Schools. He is now the district’s academic chief.

Some of the schools Burt wants to add have been languishing on the state’s list since it was first created in 2012, but have not received substantial support.

As some schools are being added to the iZone, others have improved their performance, and are no longer eligible for additional state funding. Shelby County Schools, which has covered the reduction in funding, for the first time plans to gradually wean 13 schools off that extra support. Burt vowed to monitor those schools to make sure they don’t slip again.

Scroll down to the bottom of the story to see which schools will be affected.

Burt’s plan also would combine Hamilton Elementary and Hamilton Middle into a K-8 school next year, and separate Raleigh-Egypt Middle/High into two schools again after a charter operator moved out the neighborhood. The Hamilton school proposal is also part of outgoing Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s recommendation to consolidate some schools.

Every student in nine high schools would get a hand-held device or laptop this fall, with a goal to expand to every school by the 2024-25 school year.

The district hasn’t decided whether it would be laptops, tablets, or some other device, but officials say students should have more access to technology.

“I think about children in the municipalities and across the nation… they have a device in their hand,” said Ray. “All their textbooks, they’re loaded to one device. So we need to in Shelby County Schools increase technology and give our students the opportunity to compete worldwide.”

But board members cautioned the district should have a robust learning plan for those devices.

“It’s more than just putting a device in hand,” said board member Miska Clay Bibbs.

Every high school will have two Advanced Placement courses for college credit by school year 2020-21.

Students from poor families are more likely to attend a high school with fewer advanced courses, according to a 2018 district report. Burt wants to change that.

The plan calls for more teachers in every high school to be trained to lead an honors, Advanced Placement, or pre-Advanced Placement class.

Below are the schools that would be added to and removed from the iZone. Read the district’s full presentation below.

The schools that would be added to the iZone are:

  • LaRose Elementary
  • Dunbar Elementary
  • Getwell Elementary
  • Hawkins Mill Elementary
  • Woodstock Middle
  • Georgian Hills Middle
  • Craigmont Middle
  • Wooddale High
  • Sheffield High
  • Oakhaven High
  • Manassas High

These schools would be cycled out of the iZone:

  • Cherokee Elementary
  • Treadwell Elementary
  • Lucie E. Campbell Elementary
  • Ford Road Elementary
  • Westhaven Elementary
  • Douglass K-8
  • Chickasaw Middle
  • Treadwell Middle
  • Sherwood Middle
  • Hamilton Middle
  • Douglass High
  • Mitchell High
  • Melrose High