12/9/19  Purdue Polytechnic High School Teamwork

Students collaborate on building a go-kart in the makerspace at PPHS.

South Bend school officials voted this week in favor of Purdue Polytechnic High School’s proposal to open a third location in South Bend.

The vote came after the Indiana Charter School Board approved Purdue Polytechnic High School’s charter Friday. The school will join the Broad Ripple and downtown Indianapolis locations. 

The board approved moving forward with negotiations for an agreement to house the STEM-focused charter school at Washington High School with classes to begin in fall 2020.

The Purdue Polytechnic High School emphasizes hands-on, project-based learning where students engage with community and industry partners. Students are mentored by “coaches,” the PPHS term for teachers, as they learn content online.

Over the past five years, a total of 21 students from South Bend Washington have had the credentials to be offered admission, and only seven have gone on to attend Purdue, according to a Purdue news release. According to the Indiana Department of Education, 5.5% of Washington 10th-grade students passed the math portion of the 2019 ISTEP, 23.5% passed English and 5% passed both portions. In the last five years, Purdue has averaged exactly 30 students per year from the entire South Bend Community School district.

“Purdue cannot be the engine of upward mobility that it seeks to be without taking direct and extraordinary action, and that’s what our high school network is meant to deliver,” Purdue President Mitch Daniels said in a news release.

The first PPHS was established in 2017 to “build a new pathway to Purdue and to successful careers for future students from downtown Indianapolis,” Daniels said at the announcement of the school in 2016.

Indianapolis Public Schools has an “innovation school” partnership with the downtown location. PPHS students are treated as IPS students, receive per-pupil funding from the state and access to district services like free and reduced lunch and bus passes. IPS hopes to draw traditionally underrepresented minorities and low-income students to STEM careers.

Last year, only eight students in a class of over 1,000 who graduated from the IPS system attended Purdue, according to PPHS. Charli Renckly-DeWhitt, marketing and recruitment specialist for PPHS, said 36 students at PPHS are on track to be eligible to attend Purdue. Students need to reach a minimum GPA and standardized test score threshold to get guaranteed admission into the Polytechnic Institute.

Skeptics of the charter-school network like Don Wheeler, a member of Michiana Advocates for Public Education, said they wanted to see how graduates do before bringing the school model to South Bend.

“The proposal makes it look like it turns out great graduates, but this program only started two years ago in Indianapolis,” Wheeler said in an interview with the South Bend Tribune. “We need to see if this works before they start spreading South Bend out all over the place.”

But Scott Bess, Purdue Polytechnic’s head of schools and a Purdue alum, has said it doesn't make sense to wait when public schools are not working for students.

“We don’t think it would be fair to those students to wait for four or five years and go to a failing school because we wanted to 100% be sure and have data,” Renckly-DeWhitt said.

The Broad Ripple location opened this academic year with 64 students, although the school expected 100 to 125 students in its inaugural class. Renckly-DeWhitt said this may be due to a late announcement during the enrollment process last year.

If the school model is successful, Daniels said his hope is that it's replicated in cities where the Polytechnic Institute has its statewide technology centers.

Life of a PPHS student

Students pass by rows of department stores and the raucous noise of an arcade as they come to school. Smells waft from a nearby food court. The study hall where they work on online lessons is hosted in a retrofitted mini golf course. PPHS is on the fourth floor of Circle Centre Mall.

It’s a temporary solution as the Indianapolis school will move to its permanent location on the east side of Indianapolis next academic year.

Even though it might be tempting to sneak out into the shopping mall, the attendance rate is relatively high with an average of 90% the past year,  Renckly-DeWhitt said. Many students expressed genuine interest in school as they drilled holes in their go karts or worked to redesign a community garden.

The Indianapolis school sits at just over 360 students, according to the Department of Education. The facility is a compact, navigable space that causes the familiar rush in crowded hallways between class periods. Movable furniture and bright lights give the school a modern, techie feel.

Juniors say there have been many changes at the school, with a new learning management system every year. The first-year students were able to design their own schedules. Now, school is much more structured with set time periods.

Principal Shatoya Ward attributed the changes to growing pains of a school “doing something so new” and said the school is finally settling on educational technology that works well.

PPHS outsourced its scheduling tool development to create a tool customized to its unique model. The new tool will launch next semester and uses predictive intelligence to schedule based on student needs.

“It will pull data from our online curriculum … and teacher feedback for grades,” Renckly-DeWhitt said. “It’ll pull that all in and say, 'This student is doing very poorly in math. He needs extra time,' and then it’ll automatically schedule extra time with teachers throughout the week for math.”

Students are issued a Chromebook to work on online coursework at their own pace during their study hall period. Students may be pulled out to work with a coach if they are struggling in a subject.

If students aren’t lagging in their online progress, it's up to them to be advocates for their learning — which can be tough. Some students expressed reservations about asking for help or frustrations of being ignored.

“Sometimes for me, I don’t always get the help that I need, or I get help but it’s not in the way I need it,” freshman Amy Bowling said. “It’s kind of hard to manage to do all of your schoolwork and also ask for help.”

Ward said the skill of self-management will benefit them in college or the workforce.

“When you go to college, you’re in classes where there’s 200 students and it is up to you to advocate for your own education and find the resources that you need,” Ward said. “(Students) don’t like that a whole lot because it makes them advocate so they have to say, ‘I need support in this.’”

These life skills are worked on through a close-knit support network. The student-staff ratio is one to 18. Sophomore Gaddiel Hernandez said he learns “life lessons every single day” from his coaches.

First-name basis

The school welcomes students from all backgrounds, with 18% of its students requiring special education.

MacKenzie Davis, now a junior, had gone to two high schools and was about to do online school prior to coming to PPHS.

“This school is really first-name basis,” Davis said. “I think that made me more comfortable to start high school. The teachers are not only your friends, but they’re your teachers, too.”

Almost all students The Exponent spoke with agreed that the industry projects were engaging. In their first and second year, students work with industry partners like United Way and Republic Airways to design solutions to community and global challenges.

“These field trips are for learning, not just for fun,” Hernandez said. “I learned how to express myself when doing these projects.”

Hernandez and his team is working on the problem posed by Belstra Milling Co.: How might we grow and produce quality food to serve the local community? The students learned about food deserts, met with stakeholders and designed solutions. Student teams will pitch their solution in hopes of getting selected to present in front of industry professionals.

“We’re trying to prototype a hydroponic water system so it can continue growing fruits and vegetables,” Hernandez said.

The school prides itself in not “teaching to the test,” while still having students outperform IPS and nationwide averages on the PSAT standardized in respective subgroups.

Many students have a clear goal after graduation due to their experiences at the school, from becoming an aviation engineer to a cellular biologist.

“If I just go to a traditional school, we just learn four, five, six topics,” Hernandez said. “Meanwhile here I’m learning those topics but at the same time I’m learning about different things that could be happening in the world, that can be happening now in society.”

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