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.”

voices of the vote

Meet Denver teachers who voted yes to a strike, no to a strike — and just aren’t sure

PHOTO: PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Skinner Middle School math teacher Peter English walks out of the Riverside Baptist Church with his son, Landon, left, and daughter Brooke strapped to his chest after voting on whether to go on strike ()

Throughout the day, the parking lot of Riverside Baptist Church filled up as Denver teachers made their way into a meeting organized by their union, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association.  

Months of negotiations that failed to produce a deal between top leaders of Denver Public Schools and the union had given way to individual teachers facing a choice: To strike or not?

Along with reporting the news of the day — which you can read about here — Chalkbeat spent time visiting with teachers to get a sense of what was shaping their decision-making.

Most teachers we spoke with, both in depth and in passing, said they voted “yes” to strike. Union officials have said two-thirds of those who vote Saturday and in a second session Tuesday must sign off on a strike for it to proceed, and the prevailing wisdom among teachers we interviewed was that support is strong.

The decision, though, is far from black and white for many teachers, regardless of where they ultimately land.

Here are the stories of three teachers, all at different places:

Krista Skuce, Slavens K-8 school: Yes to strike

At the urging of teachers and parents, Slavens K-8 students turned out early on a few recent mornings to show support for their teachers. They wore red in solidarity and posed for pictures.

They also brought questions. “Why are you doing this?” was one.

Krista Skuce, a physical education teacher and 14-year Denver Public Schools employee, would tell students that she lives 40 minutes from the school because she can’t afford to live in Denver.

Krista Skuce

But there is more to her story. Her spouse, she said, is no longer able to work, beset by medical issues, unable to draw disability benefits, and in need of costly care including massage therapy, chiropractic appointments, neuromuscular therapies, and more.  

At the same time, Skuce said her pay “doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.” So she hustles, earning extra pay by driving across town to coach softball and basketball.

Skuce, like many teachers who stopped to talk about their votes on Saturday, believes the district can do more to boost teachers’ base pay — before bonuses and incentives.  

She said her salary has only increased $4,000 or $5,000 in the past 14 years, even though she has been teaching 27 years, has a master’s degree, and is National Board Certified.

Skuce said she knows that by voting to strike, she could very well end up taking money out of her own bank account. Striking teachers don’t get paychecks.

“I am hoping the district and the DCTA do the right thing and recognize the fact that there are some people here who are on the edge,” she said. “We are on the edge emotionally, financially. We know these are good people. And I think teachers are people who wake up every morning with forgiveness.

“You have to take a stand and say what you are for at some point in time in your life — and this is it,” she said. “I’m willing to do it, scary or not.”  

Jason Clymer, John F. Kennedy High School: No to strike

An English teacher at John F. Kennedy High School, Jason Clymer stands with his fellow union members in the belief teachers aren’t paid enough. He finds fault with what is asked of teachers through LEAP, the district’s growth and performance system for teachers.

“Teachers at my school feel extremely micromanaged and can’t catch a breath,” he said.  

But in the end, after being one of the first teachers in the door Saturday and attending an information session, Clymer said he voted against the strike.

“Going on strike is very hard,” said Clymer, whose wife works in human resources for the district’s central office. “And I think the agreement DPS came to was close enough.”

Clymer questioned picking a fight now because of the limited scope of the negotiations. That would be the current agreement governing ProComp, the pay system that provides teachers one-time bonuses for things like teaching in a high-poverty school, getting strong evaluations, having students who earn high test scores, or teaching in a high-performing school.

He said he’d like to save some political leverage to focus on other issues covered by the district’s main contract with the union.

“It’s really unfortunate these things can’t all be negotiated together,” he said. “If the district came out and said, ‘We want to give you more money, not as much as you like, but we want to devote more to things like mental health services,’ I really think that would be a winning argument.”

In opposing a strike, Clymer said that he did not want to divide his fellow teachers

“Although I voted no, I believe in the union,” he said. “And if the union voted to strike, I will absolutely support the union.”

Paula Zendle, Denver Green School: Undecided about strike

Paula Zendle is dreading the moment that is appearing increasingly likely: standing before her students at the Denver Green School and explaining why she won’t be there to teach them.

“I tell them constantly, ‘Don’t miss school, don’t miss school. Don’t be absent, don’t be absent, don’t be absent,’” said Zendle, her eyes welling up with tears as she waited on a friend. “I have been fighting to avoid a strike. I hate this. It’s utterly and totally agonizing to me.”

Paula Zendle

Zendle said she left a career in the corporate world for the classroom and has been teaching eight years. She teaches English language acquisition and Spanish at the Green School, a popular and highly-rated middle school option in a district that celebrates choice.

 Zendle said she has done her research and written to the district’s chief financial officer. What bothers her is a system she believes rewards younger teachers and underpays teachers in terms of the cost of living.  

The average Denver teacher currently earns about $51,000 in base pay and $57,000 with incentives, according to data from the state education department and the district. That’s less than teachers in districts like Boulder Valley, Cherry Creek, and Littleton.

District officials have agreed to put $20 million more into teacher compensation and defended their most recent offer on Saturday as “compelling.”

For Zendle, the prospect of facing her students — and that she works in a supportive school environment — is contributing to her struggle in deciding whether to vote “yes” to strike.

So if the moment does come, what will she tell her students?

“We have the right to protest unfair taxpayer spending,” she said. “This is not only unfair, it’s unconscionable. Their priorities have been wrong for 10 years.”

Then she paused and made clear that her decision had not been made. She considers herself a person of principle, and that will guide her in making a decision.

lesson plan

Denver hopes to keep its schools open in a strike — and the union wants you to send your kids

PHOTO: Kathryn Scott Osler/The Denver Post
Students eat lunch in the cafeteria at Dora Moore K-8 School in Denver.

Superintendent Susana Cordova says she is committed to keeping Denver schools open and continuing to educate students in the event of a strike.

In Los Angeles, where a teacher strike is entering its second week, many students are watching movies and playing games. Cordova said she plans to do more for the 71,000 students in district-run schools if teachers vote to strike and state intervention does not lead to a deal. The 21,000 students who attend charter schools will not be affected.

“We want to assure parents school will stay open,” she said. “We know it is critically important that we focus on the education of our kids. Sixty percent of our kids qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. We know they depend on school not just for their meals but for their access to opportunity.”

Negotiations broke down Friday between the district and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, the union that represents teachers and special service providers such as nurses, school psychologists, and counselors. A strike vote is taking place in two sessions, one Saturday and another Tuesday. The earliest a strike could start is Jan. 28.

This would be the first strike in 25 years in the state’s largest school district. In 1994, the district used more than 1,000 substitutes to keep schools open, though many parents kept their children at home, something union leaders encouraged.

It’s not clear yet how high teacher participation in a strike would be. During the final week of bargaining, some teachers reported near universal support in their buildings, while others said some of their colleagues were uncertain. Some teachers have said they disagree with the union position in the negotiations and won’t participate as a matter of principle.

Teachers who strike do not get paid while they are not at work.

Cordova said the district is “in the process of building out our sub pool” and offering higher pay to those willing to work during a strike. But she declined to say how many substitutes the district could call on, and some teachers say they already have a hard time finding subs for routine absences.

Substitutes who work during a strike will earn $200 a day, double the normal rate, and “super subs” who work more than a certain number of days a year will get $250.

Many central office staff who have past teaching experience will be sent to schools to work with students. Cordova said the district is working on pre-packaged lesson plans for every grade and subject area so that learning can still take place, and officials will prioritize placing qualified staff members with special education and preschool students, those she deemed most vulnerable.

Students who get free or reduced-price lunch will still be able to eat in school cafeterias.

For its part, the union is encouraging parents to send their children to school, but with a different purpose.

“One major goal of a strike is for school buildings to be shut down as a demonstration of the essential labor performed by educators,” the union wrote in an FAQ document. “To this end, we encourage parents to send their students to school if their school building remains open. Student safety is paramount for all district schools, therefore the district will be obliged to close schools if safety becomes an issue due to limited staffing.”

Union officials said they were working to establish alternative daytime care with community partners like churches and Boys and Girls Clubs should schools close.