This Indianapolis principal wants to prepare students for jobs that don’t exist yet

Purdue Polytechnic High School Principal Shatoya Ward looks out a window.
Principal Shatoya Ward used her insights from working at Indianapolis Public Schools and the Excel Centers to launch the first Purdue Polytechnic High School. (Courtesy of Charles Jischke/Purdue University)
How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs.

When she started her teaching career in Indianapolis Public Schools, Shatoya Ward tried to reach every student who came into her classroom. Some of them she could connect with, and some of them she couldn’t.

She wondered: What happened to the students who struggled? When Ward went to work at an adult high school, geared toward helping those over 18 finish their diplomas, she found her answer.

“They grow up, and they become adults — sometimes with the same issues,” Ward said. “They’re at a different age, but they’re my kids all over again.”

Those students told her about the barriers they faced: They didn’t form relationships with their teachers. They didn’t feel schools understood their cultures and backgrounds. Nobody believed in them, and they didn’t believe in themselves, either.

What stopped many of those students, Ward realized, were gaps in life skills. Some of them, for example, didn’t understand their transcripts or credits despite having some prior high school experience — “that’s data analysis right there,” Ward said. “That’s the start of it. Then you start thinking, what next? If you want to go to college, you start working backward. That is a critical skill component that you wouldn’t believe so many students don’t have.”

When Ward got the chance five years ago to create a new charter high school, Purdue Polytechnic, she wanted to do things differently. If they could teach students to think critically, find resources, and manage their time, would it change their course as adults?

Ward recently spoke with Chalkbeat about preparing students for jobs that don’t exist yet and supporting staff members through the pandemic. 

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

At Purdue Polytechnic High School, Principal Shatoya Ward wants students to learn life skills such as problem-solving and logical reasoning. (Courtesy of Shatoya Ward)

Has there been anything in your career up to this point that prepared you for this school year?

At the start, we have been set on reinventing high school. Working previously in adult education at the Excel Center and being a part of redefining what secondary education looks like for adults positioned me to expand my perspective on the needs of high school students. The last few years, we have worked to set up our students for jobs that do not exist yet in a future society. People always ask, how do you do that? We do it by engaging students in authentic, relevant experiences that provide opportunities to coach and provide feedback on skills that are transferable in college, careers, and life. We have 20 competencies that we coach our students on — skills such as problem-solving, logical reasoning, historical thinking, and data analysis.

If you prepare students to be agile, if you prepare them for critical thinking, they’re going to see issues or complex problems that they want to solve. They’re going to invent things. We want them to be able to express themselves and get themselves in the position to reach their goals.

How are you helping to guide your staff through this unprecedented time?

This year we have made the biggest investment in technology needs, mental health, and tokens of appreciation. We sent care packages and did online trivia with prizes. We sponsored lunch through DoorDash gift certificates, and we did lunch-and-learns to talk through some of the lessons and strategies that worked for us in virtual learning. We made sure that we took the extra effort and created a culture of belonging and community to support each other.

What does a typical day look like for you now?

Busy! Before COVID, as an administrator, you were focused on student achievement and staff development. Now you find yourself spending more time on making decisions ensuring the safety of staff and students as the priority.

How are you addressing learning loss following months of remote learning?

We have begun to address learning loss by dedicating resources toward Purdue University student tutors working with our students and setting aside time before, during, and after school for the support. We will also dedicate resources to a summer session of academic support for our students. 

After nearly a year of upheaval — and in some cases grief and trauma — there’s been a lot of talk about the importance of social-emotional learning. Are you doing anything differently to account for what so many families have been through?

While monitoring the state data on deaths and positive cases of COVID, we became acutely aware of the toll that loss of lives were taking on the community and our students. It hit home when staff and students lost loved one themselves. Additionally, parents were reaching out to us pleading for help for students who just did not adjust well to isolation due to virtual learning. 

We were so fortunate to be able to partner with Damar Services, which provides mental health services for our staff and students coping with trauma and loss. We also made it a priority to set aside time to engage in activities that students and staff enjoy together to foster community and belonging, like through clubs or e-sports. It lightens up the mood. 

Tell us about your own experience with school and how it affects your work today.

If I didn’t have people in my life who believed in me enough to guide me toward opportunities and helped me access them, I would have gone a different path that may have led to a darker future. I hope to be the light in students’ futures, especially to underrepresented minorities. The more our underrepresented students interact with STEM-focused professionals, the more they understand the importance of our school’s mission, and the more I am driven toward my mission.

What’s one thing you’ve read that has made you a better educator?

I would like to highlight “Culturally Responsive Teaching and The Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement” by Zaretta Hammond. This book helped me to see what it takes and provided practical strategies to make learning accessible and relevant to our students, especially our underrepresented minorities. 

What’s the best advice you ever received — and how have you put it into action?

The best advice I have ever received is: “You do not have to know all the answers; just surround yourself with people who provide you with access to the answers.” I am so fortunate to work with resilient, passionate, driven, and brilliant people. We go hard for our students and community.

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