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.”

Rock the vote

Not sure how to vote for Detroit school board? Read candidate answers to six key questions

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Eight candidates are running for two open seats on the Detroit school board.

The eight candidates vying for two seats on the Detroit school board include a recent high school grad, a financial analyst, a former district superintendent, a youth sports coach, and religious leaders.

For the most part, they all say they want to help improve the city schools but they have different ways of getting there.

Some candidates say the district should close some of its smaller schools that aren’t fully enrolled. Others say they believe there are ways to raise the $500 million the district says it needs to bring its buildings up to modern standards.

Some candidates are open to collaborating with charter schools on things like enrollment and transportation. Others have concerns about collaborating with schools that compete directly with the district for students and staff.

Chalkbeat and Citizen Detroit surveyed school board candidates on six important issues facing the district. Seven of the eight candidates submitted written answers, either this week or last month in the lead-up to our school board candidate forum.

Scroll down to read their answers, which have been published verbatim, though they have been edited for clarity, spelling, grammar, and syntax. Read all of the candidates’ answers or click only on the names of the candidates you’re considering to see their answers.

Two seats are up for election this year. Deborah Hunter-Harvill is the only incumbent running for re-election. All seats on the seven-member Detroit school board represent the whole city, not smaller districts.

Colorado Votes 2018

Amendment 73: Understanding the tax increase for education on your Colorado ballot

PHOTO: Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat
Thousands of Colorado teachers protested for more education funding in April. What will voters say in November?

Colorado voters face an important education decision this November: whether to approve a major statewide tax increase for schools. This request represents the third time in recent years that Colorado voters have been asked to put more money into schools.

The last two times, they gave a resounding no. Amendment 73 comes on the heels of teacher protests here and around the nation that have raised awareness of low pay and other unmet classroom needs.

Proponents of the measure say Colorado schools can’t keep doing more with less and need new revenue to do right by students. Opponents say that raising taxes will hurt the state’s economic prosperity without necessarily improving student outcomes.

Here’s what you need to know to make a decision:

What does Amendment 73 do?

This measure would create a graduated income tax for people earning more than $150,000 a year and would raise the state corporate tax rate. It also would change the assessment rate — the portion of your property value that is taxed — for commercial and residential property.

Altogether, these changes are projected to raise an additional $1.6 billion a year for preschool through 12th-grade education. That’s in addition to the roughly $9.7 billion in federal, state, and local money that Colorado will spend this year on schools.

The amendment raises the base amount Colorado is required to spend on each student, and it also dedicates money to preschool spots, full-day kindergarten, students with disabilities, those learning English, and those identified as gifted and talented.

Why is this on the ballot?

Colorado’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights requires that all tax increases be approved by voters. As for this particular tax increase, Colorado funds its schools below the national average, and since the Great Recession, state lawmakers have diverted to other areas billions of dollars constitutionally due to education.

Proponents of the measure believe the only way to adequately fund Colorado schools is to tap into an additional revenue source, like these tax increases.

Opponents counter that administrative spending has grown faster than student population and teacher salaries, and that the state and school districts could free up money for classrooms by setting new priorities.

I see amendments and propositions on my ballot. What’s the difference?

Propositions become laws and can be changed by the legislature. Amendments become part of the state constitution and can only be changed by another vote of the people. Amendments need the approval of 55 percent of voters to pass, a higher bar than propositions that only require a simple majority.

How will the money be spent? What guarantees do we have that it will reach the classroom?

Amendment 73 requires that new money “supplement and not supplant” existing funding. That means the legislature cannot redirect current spending on education and replace it with this new funding source. The amendment says the legislature should adopt a new formula for distributing money to districts that takes into account student and district characteristics, but it doesn’t lay out exactly what that should look like.

In the meantime, Amendment 73 describes specific uses for $866 million in new revenue:

  • Base spending per student will go up from $6,769 to $7,300, a 7.8 percent increase
  • Funding for full-day kindergarten. Right now, districts get a little more than half a student’s worth of funding for each kindergarten student.
  • An 8.3 percent increase for preschoool, bringing the total to $131 million
  • A 6.8 percent increase for special education, bringing the total to $296.1 million
  • An 80 percent increase for gifted and talented programs, bringing the total to $22.5 million
  • A 93 percent increase for English language learners, bringing the total to $41.6 million

The extra money that districts currently receive for students with disabilities, those learning English and those identified as gifted accounts for a fraction of the additional cost of educating them, particularly in the case of students with more significant disabilities. Districts have to use tracking codes to account for this money and ensure it goes to its intended purpose. In some districts, additional money might translate into better services for these students, while others might use the additional dedicated funding to free up other money.

That leaves $738.6 million that can be spent on public education as determined by the legislature. Once that money lands in school district coffers, they have broad discretion over how to spend it. This is by design and part of an effort to get buy-in from around the state. Many school boards have passed non-binding resolutions promising to spend the money on teacher pay, more mental health supports for students, and lower class sizes.

In turn, opponents have criticized the lack of specificity as a blank check that won’t necessarily increase teacher salaries or improve student outcomes.

A recent analysis from EdChoice found that since 1992, teacher salaries in Colorado had fallen even as per-student funding and the number of administrators had increased. Colorado Department of Education records show that instructional staff — teachers, counselors, speech language pathologists, school nurses — increased by 14 percent between 2006 and 2016 while administrative staff increased by 34 percent. School administrators argue these positions are necessary to support the work that teachers do and keep districts in compliance with a host of new state and federal regulations. In smaller districts, administrators often wear multiple hats. When we ask teachers about this issue, some of them share the concern that too much money gets spent on central administration, even as they also believe schools need more money overall

You can look up how much your district spends here.

What does it mean when people say Colorado schools are ‘underfunded’? Compared to what? How underfunded?

There are several different ways to look at this. The National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers union, ranks Colorado 28th in per pupil spending when state, local, and federal money is combined and puts Colorado about $758 per student below the national average. Education Week does a more complex ranking that takes into account regional cost differences and puts Colorado nearly $2,800 below the national average. Colorado teacher salaries are among the least competitive in the nation, making it hard to recruit and retain educators. More than 100 of Colorado’s 178 school districts operate on four-day weeks.

Back in 2000, after previous years of budget cuts, Colorado voters passed a constitutional amendment that requires school funding to increase by population plus inflation. But starting with the Great Recession, Colorado lawmakers have not allocated all the money required by that amendment. Over the past 10 years, Colorado schools have missed out on $7.5 billion the law requires them to receive. The courts have upheld this budget maneuver. Money from Amendment 73 could not be reallocated during the next downturn, protecting schools but potentially creating other budget problems for the state.

Colorado also gets low marks on equity. Colorado spends much less money on education than most states with similar levels of wealth and economic activity. Per-student spending varies widely around the state, with rich districts often getting more state money than poor ones. Some districts have convinced voters to approve local property tax increases, while other have not — or have such low tax bases that voters would need to take on large increases to generate much benefit. The additional funding from these local tax increases varies from $32 to $5,024 per student.

Amendment 73 wouldn’t change these structural problems with school funding. It would give state lawmakers more money with which to level the playing field. Right now, sending more money to some districts would require reducing funding to others, creating a political minefield.

Will I pay more in income taxes if Amendment 73 passes?

People who earn up to $150,000 a year will keep paying the same 4.63 percent state income tax rate they do now. Those earning more will pay a sliding increase starting at 5 percent for income from $150,001 to $200,000 up to 8.25 percent for income over $500,000. Someone with taxable income of $200,000 would pay an extra $185 a year, while someone with $1 million in taxable income would pay an extra $24,395, according to a fiscal analysis by the state.

The increases will affect about 8 percent of individual and joint income tax filers. Amendment 73 does not include a provision to adjust the income threshold for inflation, so it’s possible that more taxpayers will pay these higher rates in the future.

This change would generate most of the new revenue under Amendment 73.

What’s the effect on corporate taxes?

Amendment 73 would raise the corporate income tax rate from 4.63 percent to 6 percent. You can see how that compares to other states’ corporate income tax rates here. The average corporate income taxpayer would owe an additional $14,139, according to state fiscal analysts.

Would Amendment 73 raise my property taxes?

This is a complicated question. Amendment 73 does not raise property tax rates anywhere in the state. But if it passes, residential property owners will pay more in 2019 than they otherwise would have, while owners of non-residential property will pay less.

Amendment 73 fixes the assessment rate at 7 percent for residential and 24 percent for non-residential property. That’s lower than it is now, but other constitutional provisions would have pushed the residential rate even lower in 2019. 

Exactly how much more or less you pay will depend on your property value, real estate trends in your community, and local tax rates.

This represents a partial fix to a complicated fiscal problem that has bedeviled Colorado lawmakers and the administrators of rural taxing entities — school districts, fire protection districts, and others — for years.

In Colorado, your property is assessed at close to market value, but your local tax rate only applies to a portion of that value. That’s the assessment rate. Another constitutional provision known as the Gallagher Amendment ensures that non-residential property owners always pay a larger share of property taxes than homeowners. Since 1982, when the Gallagher Amendment was approved by voters, property values along Colorado’s developed Front Range have skyrocketed, putting the assessment ratios between residential and other property seriously out of whack. Those ratios apply statewide, and many rural communities have seen their already sparse tax base hollowed out.

In the case of schools, that’s meant the state government has had to backfill more and more money that used to be generated by local taxes. Amendment 73 includes a provision to hold the assessment rates steady just for schools for two reasons. One is that it provides property tax relief to ranchers and farmers, which the measure’s backers hope bolsters support in parts of the state that are traditionally more hostile to tax increases. The other is that it ensures the new tax revenue generated by the amendment doesn’t just backfill an ever-deepening hole in rural districts.

Residential assessment rates will continue to drop for other taxing entities, creating an even more complex system, unless the state succeeds in a more comprehensive Gallagher fix.

Don’t schools get a lot of marijuana money already?

The bulk of marijuana tax revenue for education goes to a program that helps schools pay for buildings and construction repairs. Districts apply and compete for grant money from the program, and in most cases have to put up some portion of the project’s cost. 

Starting this year, 12.59 percent of marijuana tax revenue is also set aside for the regular education budget. That’s about $20 million a year at current rates. Marijuana money is also set aside for various grant programs including one that schools can use to help pay for health professionals such as counselors or nurses. As the state collects more marijuana revenue, the amounts set aside for the grant programs has increased.

However, the marijuana money available to schools represents a tiny fraction of total education spending, and most of it can’t be spent on basic needs like teacher salaries or classroom materials.