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.”

Local control

Change in Colorado law sets up a ‘David and Goliath’ school choice battle no one saw coming

PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Paraprofessional Ben Johnson washes of the back window of a bus at the Denver Public Schools Hilltop Terminal November 10, 2017. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

Buses from other school districts already pass through the tiny Sheridan school district, picking up homeless students who are entitled by law to transportation to their home districts in nearby Littleton or Denver.

What if those buses could make a few additional stops, picking up perhaps dozens more students who aren’t homeless but prefer to attend higher-performing schools in other districts — and taking with them tens of thousands of dollars in state funding?

That’s the concern of small, relatively poor districts in Colorado after a last-minute provision tacked onto an unrelated bill in the closing days of the legislative session became law. It allows school districts to run buses through other districts’ boundaries without first getting consent, a change from current law.

“Will we start to see the David and Goliath of school choice, where a large district with lots of resources starts to do a marketing campaign and send buses into smaller districts?” Sheridan’s outgoing Superintendent Michael Clough asked in an interview with Chalkbeat.

The Colorado Association of School Executives, which represents superintendents, is exploring the possibility of a lawsuit. The Sheridan district is among the potential plaintiffs, after publicly opposing this change when it was part of a stand-alone bill earlier in the session, though no district has made a formal decision about legal action.

The lawsuit wouldn’t target the substance of the policy, but the way it was enacted. Colorado’s constitution requires that each bill deal with a single subject, clearly expressed in the title of the bill, and that any amendments also relate to that subject.

The transportation provision in question was slipped into a bill on educational stability for youth in foster care that also has a transportation component. In a signing statement attached to the foster youth bill, Gov. John Hickenlooper said it likely represents a violation of the single-subject rule and would be open to a legal challenge.

“We make no judgement today on whether this language is sound policy,” Hickenlooper wrote of the amendment. “However, we have serious concerns about the process in which this amendment was bolted onto such an important bill.”

Foster youth have the lowest four-year graduation rates in the state, much lower even than homeless youth and students whose parents are migrant workers. The bill seeks to make it easier for these students to graduate by requiring child welfare officials and school districts to work out transportation to the student’s home district when that’s in the child’s best interest. It also creates flexibility around graduation requirements when students do change schools. The bill’s title is “Improving Educational Stability for Foster Youth.”

The tacked-on language, added in the Republican-controlled State Affairs committee five days before the end of the session, sounds relatively benign. It says that a school board “may furnish transportation” to students who are enrolled in the district but who live in another district. The provision applies to all students, not just those who are in the foster system. It also strikes language from an existing law that requires the consent of the school district from which students are being bussed.  

Where did this come from and why was it added on?

State Sen. Owen Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican and chair of the Senate Education Committee, sponsored a bill earlier in the session with the same transportation provision. It was called “Improving School Choice in Traditional Schools” and also contained requirements to standardize the open enrollment process.

Students in Colorado can enroll in any school that has room for them and can meet their needs, but deadlines and procedures vary from district to district. Most students who go somewhere besides their neighborhood school don’t get transportation, something that advocates for school choice have long criticized as a major barrier for students from low-income families, whether they’re moving between districts or within one.

Hill’s bill was opposed by the Colorado Association of School Executives and by the Colorado Association of School Boards. They said allowing districts to run school buses in neighboring jurisdictions at will would represent a serious erosion of local control and call into question the entire purpose of school district boundaries. 

Wendy Rubin, superintendent of the suburban Englewood district south of Denver, raised the specter of neighboring districts offering bus service to more affluent neighborhoods and siphoning off the funding associated with those students while leaving Englewood to educate those with greater needs.

Like Sheridan, Englewood is a small district surrounded by larger, wealthier neighbors that post better test scores.

“If we lose a class of kids, we lose a teacher or we offer one AP class when we used to offer three,” Rubin said. “We do not have the economies of scale to withstand losses of kids of 30 or 40 in a year. We would be cutting programs left and right. And what does that do to the kids who stay?”

Rubin and Clough also worried that the legislation would allow districts to cherry-pick students – offering transportation to, say, a star athlete but telling a student with disabilities that it was unable to meet her needs.

To be clear, both superintendents said they have no reason to believe their neighboring districts have immediate plans to come after their students, but they fear future school boards might make different decisions, particularly if declining enrollment increases competition for per-student dollars. 

Supporters of expanding transportation options say such possible challenges do not outweigh the importance of students being able to pursue the best education available to them. If districts want students to stay, they should offer a high-quality education, not block buses from entering their borders, they say.

Kelly Caufield of the business-oriented education reform group Colorado Succeeds pointed to a 2015 case from Pueblo. The lower-performing Pueblo 60 district is surrounded by the higher-performing Pueblo 70 district, and roughly 150 students who lived in 60 used their open enrollment rights to go to school in 70. Pueblo 70 had 10 bus routes within the boundaries of Pueblo 60 – until Pueblo 60 said no.

“Why should a superintendent worried about neighborhood lines get in the way of that student having access to a better education?” Caufield asked. “This is the exact example where that kid and their family deserve to be in a better district. And if transportation is a barrier, this bill would address that.”

The Colorado Springs area that Hill represents also has numerous districts in close proximity to each other. None of them have weighed in publicly on this issue. Hill said he brought the bill forward at the request of constituents, but none of them testified before the committee.

Hill’s bill passed the Republican-controlled Senate but died in a Democratic-controlled House committee near the end of the session. The next day, the foster youth bill came up for its first vote in the Senate State Affairs committee. Filling in as chair, Hill amended the bill without explaining what his addition would do. With the 2018 legislative session nearing its close, the committee members had a long agenda in front of them representing hours of testimony and votes, with tight deadlines to move bills to the floor. No one asked any questions or raised any objections, and the amended bill was adopted.

Hill has pushed back repeated interview requests with promises to try to talk soon. He’s involved in a heated three-way primary campaign – the election is Tuesday – to unseat sitting U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn. When his school choice bill was heard in committee, he expressed surprise that the transportation provision was controversial and suggested it could be struck from the bill to save the rest of it.

Caufield said Colorado Succeeds wasn’t involved in the decision to amend the foster youth bill, but said, “we care about what’s good for kids, so we’re excited that it crossed the finish line, even if it’s in a different form.”

Clough said Sheridan is prepared to sign on to a lawsuit. Rubin stressed that she had had only a very preliminary conversation with her school board informing them of the situation and the possibility of a lawsuit.

The law is scheduled to go into effect Aug. 9, but school districts may seek an injunction stopping the transportation provision.

Enrollment push

‘The pressure is on everyone’ as Detroit’s main district advertises to attract more students

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroit school board members stand with the students who will star in the district's summer ad campaign.

Detroit’s main school district has a new look.

Officials announced a new brand for the Detroit Public Schools Community District to real-live fanfare on Thursday, unveiling a new logo and tagline with a student brass band as backdrop.

After the announcement was made at Nolan Elementary School, students streamed out wearing blue tee shirts printed with the new logo, which depicts a rising sun.

“Students rise. We all rise,” reads the tagline, signaling that improvement  is coming to a district that is working to recover from decades of disinvestment and mismanagement.  Officials hope the campaign will bring Detroit families back to a district whose future depends in part on increasing enrollment.

That’s a sign of a new reality in public education, one that public relations professionals recognized around the time that policy shifts nationwide allowed more charter schools to open.

When school competition spread nationally, the phenomenon was especially pronounced in Michigan, where parents can enroll their children in charter schools or suburban schools that will accept them. State law puts few restrictions on where charter schools can be opened and who can open them.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said the re-branding effort was inevitable in a state that fosters competition between school districts.  Vitti has criticized Michigan’s charter school laws, but has charged head-on into the battle to enroll students nonetheless.

“I think the pressure is on everyone,” Vitti said. “Students can move from one district to another. It’s incumbent on every school district and every school to go into a marketing mode.”

The district paid $100,000 for the $300,000 campaign, which was put together by BLVD Content and Real Integrated, marketing and strategy firms that have worked for Ford, the City of Detroit, The Henry Ford, and the Detroit Opera Theater. The firms donated about $180,000 worth of work, the district said, with the non-profit United Way chipping in about $20,000 through the Detroit Public Schools Foundation. The brand includes television commercials and a new logo and tagline.

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroit’s main district has a new logo.

This is not the first time Detroit’s main district has used advertising to attract students. In 2010, the “I’m in” campaign won a top national marketing award. The old Detroit school district, which now exists only to pay off legacy debt, reported that 830 students enrolled as a result.

Nora Carr, former president of the National Association of School Public Relations, says schools are “borrowing a page from the private sector” by investing in brands. “Rarely mentioned a decade ago, branding is becoming part of the educational lexicon,” she wrote in a 2009 article.

While enrollment in Detroit’s main district has declined, it remains the largest in the state. That makes it easier to raise funds, but harder to implement a brand widely enough that it will become ingrained in parents’ perception of the district.

Many charter schools in the city are far smaller. Take The Detroit Achievement Academy, a 200-student charter school on the city’s northwest side. Kyle Smitley, the school’s founder, said in a text that she does the branding herself. “We don’t pay anyone externally,” she added.

District officials say the brand projects “a new beginning for traditional public education in Detroit.” His administration has set lofty academic goals, which it hopes to reach through an overhauled curriculum, but it remains too early to judge whether these efforts will move the district forward.

Boosting enrollment is a crucial piece of the puzzle. A plan unveiled earlier this month called for commercials on television, billboards and buses, part of an effort to bring back some of the roughly 30,000 students who wake up every day in the city and go to school in the suburbs.

The commercials will be based on a promotional video, also released Thursday, in which rapper Big Sean, a graduate of Cass Technical High School, speaks over images of actual Detroit students playing sports and studying. They build on a tradition of commercials that emphasize Detroit’s hard-knock reputation, with the rapper dropping lines like “we are a city that runs on ambition and grit.”

The video and other advertising materials can be seen on the district’s website.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the size of the contribution from United Way. The non-profit contributed $20,000 to the branding campaign.