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.”

Story booth

VIDEO: How a Detroit special education advocate tries to help parents

PHOTO: Tairia Bridges
Dorothea Nicholson is a education advocate for children with special needs and their parents

When Dorothea Nicholson first learned her oldest daughter had special needs, she recalls crying all the time.

Her daughter, now 17, was almost 5 years old then, and had so many health issues – including being unable to hear, walk, talk, or hold food down – doctors told Nicholson there was nothing they could do, and that she should place her daughter in center-based treatment. Nicholson remembers going to 15 doctors appointments in one week and feeling alone.

“I didn’t know what I was supposed to do,” the Detroiter said. “I was left in the dark, lost.”

Five years later, Nicholson gave birth to another daughter. She had attention deficit disorder with impulsivity, mood disorder, asthma and allergies to “almost everything.”

But by then, Nicholson said she had a better idea of what steps to take to advocate for her after attending support groups and getting other help.

Now, the educational advocate has taken up a mantle of helping other parents of children with special needs. She  understands these parents deal with a variety of issues in their personal lives while trying to figure out what to do to support their children.

Nicholson recently shared the story of how she helps parents of children with special needs at a recent special education listening session sponsored by Chalkbeat Detroit and the nonprofit Detroit Parent Network. Do you know someone who has a story to share? Reach out to us.

talking shop

Richard Carranza’s back-to-school checklist: less paperwork, clearer lines of responsibility, and a hard look at gifted programs

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
When students head back to class in September, it will mark the chancellor's first full school year.

Richard Carranza jokes that his colleagues must be tired of hearing him ask the same questions.

Four months into his role as New York City’s schools chief, Carranza has had a chance to get under the hood of the country’s largest school system. And for each policy the city pursues, Carranza wants to know: “What’s our return on investment? How do we know? How do we prove it?”

His attention to hard numbers is just one of the ways that Carranza’s tenure promises to be different from that of his predecessor, who favored stories over statistics. He has charted his own course in other ways, by tackling school segregation head-on, and shaking up the leadership structure for how schools are supported. (Still, he’s not going at it totally alone: Carranza said he grabs coffee periodically with former chancellor Carmen Fariña, whom he called a “great lady.”)

Carranza’s new approach will get tested this September when more than a million students head back to school — ushering in his first full school year as chancellor.

In an exclusive interview with Chalkbeat, Carranza made it clear that he enters the year with more big questions on his mind, like whether New York City’s approach to gifted admissions is fair. He’s also finding some things he likes about the current system — toning down some of his early criticism of the city’s controversial Renewal school turnaround program. And he’s already thinking about what he wants his legacy to be in New York City.

Here are highlights from our Friday interview, condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

How have you been spending your summer? What have been your priorities and who have you been meeting with?

This summer has been super busy. I spent a lot of time, obviously, with the reorganization. (Carranza pared down his executive staff and added new roles, including executive superintendents and a Chief Academic Officer. Read more here.) I’ve been interviewing and hiring people. We’ve been also doing some reconfiguration with how the Department of Education is organized so that we’re better able to function on delivering what we’ve promised. I’ve been spending a lot of time still — it’s a big city — meeting people.

I’ve been spending a lot of time in professional development with principals and teachers and central office people. One of the things I really try to do is not just drive by, ‘Hey everybody. It’s nice being here.’ And then I’m out. I try to actually spend time, and preferably at least half a day — which is really hard to do, and sometimes I can only spend an hour or two. I really want to get a flavor: What is it that we’re doing in terms of professional development?

What I’ve also been doing is, as I learn more and more and more about the DOE and what the initiatives have been over the last four of five years, trying to understand where we are with them. I think people are kind of sick of me around Tweed, because I keep asking, ‘So what’s the return on investment? How do we know? How can we prove it?’

One of the things that I’ve heard a lot of comment about from folks in the department and school-based folks has been the weight of bureaucracy on the day-to-day work. By that I mean the paperwork that people have to do or the processes to get stuff done that may not make sense. One of the directives I’ve given to the folks is ‘weeding the garden.’ We need to weed the garden of stuff that’s just a time suck or it’s not helpful to the work that we do.

What specifically do you think should happen at schools that are low performing? When you took the job, you meet with people around the city and produced a report where you talked about schools needing more support. But what should happen after schools have received support and improvement isn’t clear?

I believe that when you look at improving schools or empowering schools to improve, one of the things that you can’t do is just looking at that on a short-term basis. By that I mean: You can name the schools, you can put them in a group of schools, you can invest resources, and then once they get better, you take away the resources. Well guess what? They’re going to go right back.

A much better approach is to really look at the conditions. Do a root cause analysis. What are the challenges that schools face — and not just the school, but the community? You also have to do a systems scan, and by that I mean: Are there policies, are there decisions that are made that are not inside their control? For example, have we changed a boundary line? Have we implemented a screen somewhere? Have we implemented a specialized program somewhere that impacts, negatively, this school that we’re looking at? Then the third thing you have to do is then align resources based on that needs assessment — not for a certain amount of time but as a way of doing business.

We’re in the process of doing that analysis right now with all of our schools. Obviously, schools that had previously been named as Renewal schools and even the schools that have moved into a Rise status, they’re part of that list. But there are other schools as well.

But after you’ve done those levels of analysis and you feel like schools have been given adequate time, is there an end point? Do you believe in school closures at all, after all those things have been tried?

I think we have to be able to serve students. I don’t talk about school closures because when you start talking about, ‘The end is going to be the ax,’ then that’s never been very motivating for anybody. What I talk about is what we’re going to do in advance, and the process. But I guarantee you in every school I’ve ever worked with, when you’re really clear about that needs assessment, you’re really clear about the current condition, you’re really clear about where you want to get, the process itself will make it very clear: If we’re not able to do this, then we have to do something different for the students we serve.

But I really don’t talk about school closures because that’s really not a goal.

But even if it’s not a goal, is it a policy tool that could be used?

Let me be clear: I’m not scared of closing a school if it’s not serving the needs of the student. My experience, nine times out of 10, has been that we haven’t done all we can do, to actually give schools that are struggling to improve, the right conditions, the right resources, and the right support to actually improve.

When we first sat down, one of your initial critiques of the Renewal program was that there hadn’t been a clear ‘theory of action’ and that ‘makes it difficult’ to talk about what outcomes to expect. You said you were working on this ‘very, very quickly.’ So what is theory of action now, and what are the outcomes we should be looking for?

When we met, I hadn’t yet had a deep dive with the person who had taken over Renewal, Cheryl Watson Harris. WI was extremely impressed by her strategic way of looking at the work. It coincided almost perfectly with the way I look at the work. You have to have great leadership. You have to empower. And you have to train teachers for the students you have. You have to have a strong curriculum. You have to have systems and structures in schools that replicate good practices. You have to have a social-emotional community schools approach, and you have to empower communities and parents. That’s why she’s now the senior deputy chancellor, in charge of all of the supervision of all of our schools.

So my theory of action is: If we take the time to do a root cause analysis, and understand all of the facets involved with a challenging school, if we align resources to meet those root cause issues, if you have the right people in place and if you are persistent over time, you will be able to turn around a school and make it a good academic learning environment.

Renewal was supposed to be a three-year program that’s now going into year four. What’s the plan after this year? Are there any changes in the works?

We’ve learned lessons from the Renewal implementation over the first three years. As you know, we’re about to announce nine executive superintendents, which will have a very strong academic leadership role in the geographically based field service centers in the city. Those executive superintendents will take on much more responsibility for those previously called Renewal schools And those nine executive superintendents will be networked, working as a group, around supporting the schools that are in their areas.

You had three and sometimes three or more people giving direction to Renewal schools. It was a little chaotic.

Now you’re going to have a very clear line of accountability. You’re going to have an executive superintendent working with the superintendent, supported horizontally by our school improvement strategies and teams. We’re going to have a much more coordinated way of not only doing the needs assessment that I talked about, but also making sure that we’re providing the appropriate supports and then holding ourselves accountable for what we say we’re going to do.

When you say ‘previously labeled Renewal schools,’ do you imagine these schools will shed that label, and under this new structure, they will just be schools that get targeted support through that? Or is that a decision that’s not been made yet?

I don’t refer to them as Renewal schools, only because — not that that program has gone away, not that that focus has gone away — I just look at the work of improving schools in a little bit of a different lens. I call them ‘schools of opportunity,’ because this is our opportunity to do some very specific, strategic work within schools.

What problems are the reorganization solving?

Part of my analysis, which was then confirmed when I did my listen and learn tour, was that it was confusing where accountability lied in the organization. So as principals worked to meet the needs of their schools, they often found it confusing as to who they went to, to get support.

In addition, it was very difficult for us to actually coordinate with agencies in the city or community-based organizations wanting to do work on a number of different issues like homelessness or foster care kids, because components of what we did to support those kinds of students were in various departments across the DOE. It was very hard to build a strategic way of doing the work. What the organizational shift did was solve for a lot of those issues. Like strands of work are now in like structures, led by someone who has a very clear line of accountability.

In the case of our academic program, what I found was that you had some really hard working people in Teaching and Learning doing a lot of great work around curriculum, coaching, leadership development, you name it. I had great, hard-working people working on issues relating to English Language Learners. Great, hard-working people in special education. But rarely did they work across each other’s silo to actually have an integrated way of doing the work. That’s why I created the Chief Academic Officer position. The Chief Academic Officer will be responsible for those three strands of district work.

I think a cabinet of 22 people, which is what I inherited — great people — it’s unwieldy. So the cabinet is shrunk to nine. My cabinet touch every aspect of everything that happens in the district. It’s my way of being able to not only collaborate but to give direction, hold accountable, and also be clear about implementation of initiatives that we have in the district.

Final thing I’m going to say: One of the biggest complaints that I heard from parents was, who do I go to? I have a problem in my school — who do I go to? And that’s why they ended up emailing me. So with the executive superintendents, there’s an executive superintendent for Staten Island who has the authority to make decisions for what happens on Staten Island, who has the responsibility for addressing and working with parents and community members on Staten Island, who is going to be intimately knowledgeable about what happens on Staten Island. In other words, it’s bringing the decision-making and accountability closer to the ground.

Heading in a different direction: What did you make of your visit to a Success Academy school? Eva Moskowitz, who runs that network, said that you seemed more friendly to charter schools. Is that an intentional shift?

I like to think I’m a collaborative guy. I think I’ve met pretty much all of the charter school leaders in New York City by now. My approach is always to talk about the work from the perspective of, “What’s good for kids and what’s the educational value in us working together?” I don’t go into those meetings assuming that I’m going to have an adverse reaction or an adverse relationship with anybody in the meeting. I never do that any way.

I’ve also made the effort to actually go into charters — Success Academy being one of them.

I will continue to look to find places where we can actually do collaborative work together if it’s going to help kids in New York City.

We want to talk about specialized high schools. You and the mayor have proposed a plan to admit more black and Hispanic students at the schools by eliminating the test that serves as the sole admissions factor. But the rest of the school system is also segregated, and many of our readers have asked whether you plan on taking an active role in desegregation efforts beyond specialized high schools.

Let’s go over the record. Within months of getting here, the mayor and I have now proposed a plan. Is it a perfect plan? Some people say yes, some people say no. But we’ve proposed a plan that’s never been proposed before around, ‘How are we going to create more opportunities for students in specialized schools?’

I think it’s also important to understand that when you talk about diversifying schools, you obviously are talking about not only diversifying the students who go to the schools, but then from the school improvement perspective, being really clear about what are the components that we want to make sure are working well in every school. As we work to improve schools that have historically not done well, you’re going to see more and more opportunity for students. But you can’t do that with just talking about integration. You also have to talk about curriculum. You have to talk about instruction. You have to talk about leadership. You have to talk about resource allocation.

And then you have to talk about systems and structures that advantage some schools and disadvantage other schools. That’s where the hard rub is because people will always equate that to a zero-sum game. I don’t think that anyone can deny that there are structures in our system that advantage some schools and disadvantage other schools, I’m asking the question: Is that ok? I think it’s a worthy conversation to have.

What personal role did you play in pushing for admissions changes at the specialized high schools?

The mayor and I, when we spoke about my coming to New York City, knew what he was getting. He knew how I grew up, where I grew up, what my educational pathway way was, what my leadership pathway has been.

So all I can say is that, in all of the conversations I’ve had with the mayor prior to my arrival and since my arrival, I can tell you the mayor is passionate about making sure that our schools are just as diverse as our city. He’s passionate about making sure that students, in the communities where they live, have great options for going to school. He has never bridled me and he has never told me not to talk about this, and he’s never told me what to talk about.

But he and I have had, like two grown men, lots of great conversations about this.

Was it already on the table when you came in, or was it something that developed after you got here?

I did my homework when I was going to come to New York City. So I had a working knowledge of what the big issues were, and given my background, we talked about it.

One of the things that I appreciate is, what the mayor hired was an educator to be the chancellor and he lets me do my job.

The proposal has been met with backlash, particularly from parents in the Asian community. Do you wish you would have done anything differently in the roll-out to announce the admissions changes?

There always is an opportunity for more input and buy in. But I think subsequent to the roll-out, where some aspects of the community have balkanized and sort of taken a stance, that wouldn’t have been any different had we done more robust engagement process up front. Since that roll-out, though — and nobody really writes about it, and that’s good — but I’ve been meeting with folks. I’ve been starting to have some really substantive conversations.

We have a very similar model for admitting students to gifted, and a similarly segregated population. Is that acceptable, and what do you think education should look like? Should we have it at all?

We probably should be really clear about what we mean about truly gifted. The student that is doing algebra in the third grade, that’s a gifted kid. But are we really talking about that when we talk about gifted and talented programs? I don’t know. I think sometimes it’s ironic where folks will say, ‘oh, if you’re going to identify a student for gifted and talented it shouldn’t be just one test.’ Kids are kids. It should also be teacher observation. It should be all these other multiple measures, which I think is a good idea. But then it comes to specialized high school admissions and we all say, ‘Oh, no. No, no. It’s just one test.’

But that’s largely not how it works in gifted right now. Largely, it’s just one test.

And I think that’s not a good idea. here is no body of knowledge that I know of that has pointed to the fact that you can give a test to a 4-year-old or a 5-year-old and determine if they’re gifted. Those tests — and it’s pretty clear — are more a measure of the privilege of a child’s home than true giftedness. We should really have those conversations — including, ‘What is gifted and talented?’ If you’re going to assess for gifted and talented, how do you do that? When do you do that? And what makes sense?

When you look at the disparities in representation across this system, you have to ask the question, do we have the right way of assessing and making decisions about students?

The mayor wants to make sure every second grader is reading on grade level and has placed literacy coaches in high needs schools to help reach that goal. Some recent research shows the program hasn’t had a positive effect, but the city is adding more coaches. What will be different this year?

When it comes to universal literacy, keep in mind that it’s pretty nascent in its implementation. We’ve changed the assessments we’re going to be using because I wasn’t satisfied in the assessments we were going to be using. It didn’t give us an ability really to compare across the system or even to other systems. I can tell you that the professional development that our coaches are going to be providing to teachers and the coaching is going to be much tighter and much more aligned. For example, if you’re doing a balanced literacy approach, and kids come around a kidney table with a teacher, there are certain protocols you should follow and certain information you should be gathering that helps you then makes the decision about what the next instructional practice is. As I looked at some of the evidence, it wasn’t always clear to me that we were really clear about what that looked like.

When you’re done here, in maybe three years, how are you going to measure your own success? What do you hope to have accomplished, especially within the specific issue of segregation?

My goal is that I’m not going to be done here for another 20 years — that the results are going to be so good in three-and-a-half years that whoever is the new mayor is going to say, ‘Why are we going to change this?’ That’s my goal. But I will tell you that whenever we’re done here, I’m going to be able to look back in three very general areas where I would like to have liked to have seen us really move the needle.

First and foremost is around curriculum and instruction — that we will have a curriculum that is tight. It’s going to be inclusive of all students — all ethnicities, all gender identification types, LGBTQ, everybody is seen in their curriculum. That we’re going to have great implementation, that we’re going to have great professional development for teachers that’s embedded. And we’re also going to have great supports around teaching in a very restorative way so that we have good systems and structures around that.

The second one is going to be around equity, that we will have moved the equity agenda in New York City so that we’re actually leading the nation. It gives me chills in a bad way every time I hear somebody reference the fact that we’re the most segregated school system in America. So I would hope to say that in the equity front, that we’ve actually dealt with our issues.

And then the third area I think is really, really important as I look back is that I want to make sure that we’ve done the work to empower parents and communities where they are. I’m not convinced, despite our best efforts, that we’ve actually met communities where they are. And we’ve not done that in people’s native languages.

Is there anything we didn’t ask you about that you want us to know?

I was at a meeting this morning and then when I got done with the meeting I walked into a coffee shop. I bought a cup of coffee and as I was standing there getting ready to pay, a gentleman comes out from the back with his apron on. He comes over and shakes my hand, and he says, ‘Thank you. My kids are so proud. I tell them, look. He didn’t speak English. Look what he’s doing.’

It’s occurred to me that I get stopped on the street a lot by taxi drivers who’ll lean out of the window and say, ‘Keep doing it!’ Construction workers, people who work in restaurants. And it feels good to me because I think maybe what I’m talking about, in the way that I’m talking about it, is not high-falutin. It’s in the people’s language. And I think that’s a good thing.