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South Bend School Board Plans to 'Terminate Negotiations' for Purdue Charter Innovation School

The main entrance of Washington High School in the snow.
Jennifer Weingart
WVPE Public Radio


The South Bend Community School Corporation board likely won’t partner with a new charter from Purdue University coming to the city. A recommendation on Monday night’s school board agenda would take an innovation agreement off the table for the coming school year.

Purdue Polytechnic High School was granted a charter in December to open a school in South Bend. There are two PPHS campuses in the  Indianapolis area. A potential agreement with the charter proposed puttting it in a currently unused portion of Washington High School.

“I wanna be clear at the beginning, the charter board approved them coming to South Bend. They’re coming to South Bend,” said SBCSC Superintendent Todd Cummings.

A partnership with South Bend schools would have made Purdue Polytechnic what’s called an Innovation School. How that works is a public district has an agreement with a charter school, the public district gets to count the enrollment and test scores of the charter school as its own. (Currently Indianapolis Public Schools is the only district with Innovation School partnerships with charters.)

Falling Enrollment

South Bend has a few charter schools already, but no innovation schools. The district has also been losing students to other local public districts like Penn-Harris-Madison. 

According to the Indiana Department of Education, enrollment in the district has been trending downward for decades. From the 2018-19 school year to this school year alone the district lost 500 students. 

At nearly $7,000 in state education money per student, that’s a lot of funding the district no longer has. 

Cummings said SBCSC could charged for rent and utilities, recouping much-needed funds.

Mirroring Riley Magnet

Purdue Polytechnic is a school focused on STEM education. Students take core courses, like English and History, on an online platform with teachers available to help struggling kids. 

The rest of their day is taken up with what are called ‘passion projects’--these are teacher led and often include partners in the business community. 

“The majority of the day is spent in collaboration where students are working on their projects.” Explained PPHS North Principal Keeanna Warren. “They’re coming up with some really great solutions.”

But to a lot of those following the issue, this sounds like the STEM magnet that already exists at Riley High School. 

Riley Principal Shawn Henderson is concerned Purdue--with or without a partnership with the South Bend Schools--will take students away from the Riley program.

“Each one of our schools has a very specific magnet and they do a very great job of doing that. I truly believe that adding Purdue Polytech would have a great impact on the students and Riley High School. I really do believe that,” Henderson said that ‘great impact’ would likely mean kids that would’ve applied for the Riley Magnet would end up at Purdue Polytechnic instead.

Recruiting South Bend

One of the benefits the charter school gets in an innovation agreement is access to recruit students in the district. They would have direct access to pitch the charter to the district’s eighth graders and their parents.

And, in the case of Purdue Polytechnic, they would also get the chance to recruit those students to Purdue University.

“Really the big driver is, is there high need, right?” PPHS head of schools Scott Bess explained. “Do we have a place where there’s high populations of low income, first generation students, students of color and maybe where there’s not a very large pipeline of students that are going to a place like Purdue.”

Bess said right now, there aren’t very many students from South Bend electing to go to Purdue once they graduate.

Purdue University’s undergraduate population is 59 percent white. About 20 percent of the student body is made up of first-generation college students--those whose parents did not attend higher education. 

Purdue Polytechnic High School students who graduate in good standing with high enough GPAs and SAT scores have preferred admission into Purdue Polytechnic Institute--a college within Purdue University. 

Bess said they're working on extending the preferred admission to several other programs at Purdue including the colleges of education and engineering. 

Looking to the West Side

“When we thought about opportunities, we thought about access to college," Superintendent Cummings said. "We thought this could be really terrific on the west side.”

But some residents at previous community meetings are concerned about what they see as Purdue’s targeting of minority students.

Dalila Huerta is a SBCSC parent, education advocate and restorative justice educator. 

“I can not stress this enough both as an educator and as a woman of color, recruiting students for the mere sake of diversity does not lead to equitable outcomes on its own.”

Opponents are also concerned about how the charter seems to see the city. 

“The description in your application of the west side of South Bend was despicable,” resident Linda Wolfson told Bess at one community meeting. “That’s not the west side of South Bend I know, I don’t even know it that well and I know it’s not that.”

The application says, in part, “most students growing up on the west side of South Bend are ill prepared to take part in the revitalized economy” of the region and the state.

PPHS North Principal Warren said the charter strives to have the staff look like the student body. She said otherwise the key is getting all staff trained on bias. 

“Making sure that our teachers have the training and if they struggle with implicit bias and can’t confront their privilege, they can’t work at the schools.”

Though, with a statewide and national teacher shortage, neither Bess nor Warren could say how they expect to get a diverse and qualified faculty and staff.

Other Concerns

People at the community meetings wanted to know about the charter’s board. Three members are appointed by Purdue University’s trustees. The other six are not likely to be locals. None will be chosen by voters like public school boards are. 

Members and supporters of South Bend’s teacher’s union are concerned  the charter would not allow their staff to unionize. Teachers at PPHS campuses in Indianapolis are not in a union. Bess says creating or joining a union is up to the teachers.

An End to Negotiations

The South Bend School board is expected to ‘terminate negotiations’ with Purdue for this school year. 

According to a statement from Cummings about the termination on the board agenda, they school is listening to the community “Parents, teachers, students, and community members voiced their opposition to this potential partnership, and the board listened. We may revisit this after more student outcome data is available, after Purdue Polytechnic High School has operated in South Bend for at least a year."

The district could choose to make an Innovation School agreement in future years. Bess said that’s something Purdue would be willing to explore.

But, Purdue Polytechnic High School is expected open somewhere in South Bend this fall with a freshman class. The enrollment is open. If more students apply than there is room in the class, students will be chosen through a random lottery.