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.”

a day in lansing

More ABCs, fewer sacrifices: These Detroit parents know how Michigan lawmakers can improve early childhood education.

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Oriana Powell, 30, listens to a presentation about early childhood education in Lansing. Powell joined dozens of parents from across the state in calling for increased access to early learning.

Parents cheered when the a state-funded preschool program, the Great Start Readiness Program, was expanded in Michigan in 2013, increasing the available seats by roughly 16,000.

But the expansion didn’t eliminate every challenge.  The program ended at 3 p.m., for starters, making it difficult for parents who hold a full-time job to pick their children up.

“What kind of job are you going to get that will let you pick up your child at 3 p.m.? Parents are literally quitting their jobs to get child care,” Ekere-Ezeh, CEO of the Early Learning Neighborhood Collaborative, said.

With issues like this one in mind, dozens of parents from Detroit, Flint, and Grand Rapids — where Ekere-Ezeh’s organization is based — traveled to Michigan’s state capital on Tuesday to make the case for the further expansion of the states’ early childhood education system. It was the first such event in at least a decade, according to the organizers.

Still unclear is whether the latest effort to expand early learning opportunities for Michigan children will succeed where past efforts have failed. The prospects seem hopeful following the election of Gretchen Whitmer, a governor who made pre-K a key part of her campaign platform.

“Every effort matters,” Heaster Wheeler, the newly appointed Assistant Secretary of State who previously worked for the early childhood partnership Hope Starts Here, told the Detroit contingent. “The fact that you were here today meant a whole bunch of legislators felt your presence. This is how they set their priorities.”

Many of the group’s priorities center on the Great Start Readiness Program, Michigan’s state funded pre-K program for children from low-income families.

In addition to closing at 3 p.m., the program is only offered to four-year-olds, even though experts recognize that children need help at even earlier ages. And it’s only offered to parents who make less than 130 percent of the federal poverty level — the second lowest cutoff for childcare subsidies in the U.S.

Roughly two dozen parents traveled from Detroit in hopes of addressing those concerns. Oriana Powell, a 30-year-old mother from Detroit, said that in the end, she would have liked more face time with her legislators. Of more than a dozen state legislators with ties to Detroit, only a handful showed up.

“They’re not just going to give it to folks,” Powell said, referring to an expansion of the state pre-K program. “It comes from parents making it very clear that we can’t continue to support anyone who’s not going to create the change that we need.”

Tuesday’s activism was only the start. Advocates say they are gearing up for a fight over early childhood education funding in the spring. They may get a hand from business groups that support expanded access to child care because more parents are available to work when they don’t have to stay home caring for children.

Powell, who has a two-year-old daughter, will be watching closely.

She recently tired of leaving her two-year-old daughter at home all day to watch TV with her grandparents. But the higher-quality program she found for her daughter came with higher costs.

After years of zeroing out every credit card bill, she’s found herself carrying a balance to deal with the $500 monthly child care bill.

“It’s been tight,” she said, “but it’s worth the sacrifice. Within a month, my daughter was coming home saying her ABCs.”

principal pipeline

MBAs wanted: Success Academy looks to woo business leaders for a fast-track principal program

PHOTO: Monica Disare/Chalkbeat
Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz touted her network's test scores at a press conference in 2017.

New York City’s largest charter operator is launching a fast-track program designed to quickly train business leaders to become principals at schools across the network and elsewhere.

Starting this spring, Success Academy is kicking off a two-year program to take “talented leaders from across industry” — especially those with MBAs — and convert them into principals at one of the network’s 47 schools or at other schools across the country.

The program is noteworthy partly because it could help address a consistent problem among New York City charter schools: They tend to burn through principals at a higher rate than traditional public schools do.

Last school year, 25 percent of the city’s charter school principals were new, more than double the turnover rate at district schools, according to a recent Manhattan Institute report. Success has also struggled at times to retain principals and teachers, a challenge that has contributed to a tumultuous period at its first high school, Success Academy High School of the Liberal Arts in Manhattan. Success officials said 10 of its schools had new principals this year, adding that three of them were at new schools.

“I don’t know if we have a strong sense either way about whether this will be effective or not,” said Marcus Winters, the researcher who authored the Manhattan Institute turnover study, noting that there is not a large research base to draw on. Researchers often “focus on teachers, but principals and other administrators really mean a lot.”

It’s not clear how many of the inaugural class of 25 fellows will wind up running a Success Academy school. The fellowship application says the boot camp is “designed to train talent new to education to become principals in our growing network of schools.” But Success spokeswoman Ann Powell also emphasized that some fellows would likely “go directly to lead schools across the country” — an effort to spread the charter network’s model elsewhere.

In the first year of the new Success program — known as “Robertson Leadership Fellows” — participants will spend three weeks learning “the basics of school design and school leadership” before spending a couple of months learning about data and operations from the central office team.

The next four months will be devoted to teaching and learning; fellows will also participate in a “specialized track” of Success Academy’s own teacher training program to learn about instruction and teacher preparation. Finally, fellows will spend a six-month stint working as an assistant principal. The entirety of the second year will be spent as an assistant principal — though at a different school than during year one.

Fellows are paid on a scale similar to assistant principals, Powell said, though she did not answer questions about their exact compensation or how much the program will cost. The Robertson Foundation, which is funding the program and has invested heavily in Success Academy, did not answer specific questions about the program, including its cost.  

The program is reminiscent of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s boot camp for aspiring principals, which also believed business principles were useful in running schools. Under that program, less experienced educators could be elevated into leadership positions after a fast-track training program that taught them to run schools like CEOs. The Aspiring Principals program was controversial; some critics argued leaders without lots of education experience should not quickly vault into principal positions.

Research found the program had some positive effects on student test scores, but a different analysis found that schools run by the program’s graduates had higher rates of teacher turnover and lower grades on progress reports. The program was ultimately phased out in 2017 under Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Eric Nadelstern, a deputy chancellor during the Bloomberg administration who later ran a principal training program at Teachers College, said hiring leaders from other industries can work, but isn’t always the best strategy.

“It’s useful for somebody to have spent time in a school to be a good principal,” he said, noting the Teachers College program required three years of classroom experience. “The focus should be home grown people from your own schools who have done an outstanding job.”

Success officials acknowledged that internal teacher candidates would not be eligible for the fellowship program, but said there are alternative routes for educators to become principals. The program will be overseen by Aparna Ramaswamy, the network’s chief leadership and human resources officer, Powell said. The first group of fellows are set to begin training in April.

Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify the description of the Aspiring Principals program.