Back for more: DeVos returns to Indianapolis for a repeat visit to an innovation school

Purdue Polytechnic High School in Indianapolis, and its educational model, are once again getting attention from Washington, D.C.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos visited the charter school’s downtown location on Tuesday as part of her “Back to School” tour, which aims to highlight school choice and programs that prepare students for college and careers. The Indianapolis school, started by Purdue University, is testing a radically different, project-based approach to education to prepare students for science, technology, engineering, and math degrees.

It’s the second time in as many years that DeVos’ team has visited Purdue Polytechnic, which is an Indianapolis Public Schools innovation school run independently under the district’s umbrella. Last September DeVos’ assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education said he was “very, very happy” with what he saw at Purdue Polytechnic.

On Tuesday, DeVos toured a handful of classrooms. Some students worked on printing three-dimensional models of younger children’s drawings, others were giving presentations on “the science of happiness” and building catapults to learn about projectile motion.

“I think it’s a great approach to learning for a lot of kids,” DeVos said. “I know I wish I would have had some experiences like this when I was in high school. Hands-on, project-based learning, it really works for a lot of young people.”

A staunch advocate for school choice, DeVos has repeatedly cited Indianapolis — with its large charter sector, private school voucher program and unconventional district partnerships with charter schools — as a national model. When asked why she chose to visit a school her administration had seen previously, DeVos said she’s heard about the school for a “couple of years” and had it at the top of her list to visit.

“I’ve really focused on trying to visit schools that are doing things differently to meet students’ needs and to help students achieve, and so Indiana is one of the leaders in the country in this regard,” she said.

Now in its third year, Purdue Polytechnic focuses its work not on traditional academic classes, but on a series of community-based projects throughout the year. These projects aim to incorporate the skills Indiana high schoolers are expected to learn. The school was founded with the goal of preparing more students — particularly students of color and those from low-income families — for degrees in math, science, technology, and engineering.

Purdue Polytechnic now has 377 students in grades nine to 11 at its downtown location in Circle Center Mall and around 75 students in grades nine and 10 at its new location in Broad Ripple, school officials said. About a third of the students are black and nearly a quarter are Hispanic, according to 2018-19 state data.

It will be another year before the school graduates its first class and its model can be evaluated on its postsecondary placements for students. So far, the only state measure available is standardized testing. In 2018, the most recent year for which data is available, 62.5 percent of its students passed the 10th-grade ISTEP exam.

When asked how she measured the young school’s success before making the decision to highlight it, DeVos pointed to the fact that students were enrolling.

“First of all, students are choosing to be here, families are choosing to be here, they see the opportunity,” DeVos told the media. “And we believe that there should be a wide variety of approaches to learning and teaching and a wide variety of experiences for kids to be able to learn and achieve.”

This is the second time in two months that DeVos has visited Indiana. In August she toured The Last Mile, a coding program for inmates that expanded last year to Pendleton Juvenile Correctional Facility, about 30 miles northeast of Indianapolis.

That visit followed her calls on U.S. Congress to expand and make permanent the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program, which offers grants to inmates to pursue postsecondary education before being released. DeVos called the program in Pendleton a “good model” for second-chance education, saying it’s “very consistent” with President Donald Trump’s criminal justice reform agenda.

DeVos said she would also visit Purdue Global, the university’s online college for working adults, on Tuesday before heading to Ohio.