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South Bend school corp., Purdue Polytechnic charter enter into Innovation School agreement

South Bend Community Schools superintendent Todd Cummings, center, sits with former Purdue University president Mitch Daniels during a Sept. 2021 visit to South Bend.
Gemma DiCarlo/WVPE
South Bend Community Schools superintendent Todd Cummings, center, sits with former Purdue University president Mitch Daniels during a Sept. 2021 visit to South Bend.

The past few years have seen the South Bend Community School Corp. mostly at odds with charter schools as the traditional public district has fought against declining enrollment and resources.

But now the South Bend schools are joining together with Purdue Polytechnic High School on a new partnership to form a so-called innovation school.

The agreement was approved by South Bend’s school board last Monday, though details on the full extent of what the partnership entails are still unclear.

The new partnership will not create a new school or any new academic programs, nor will Purdue Polytechnic share space with any South Bend school corp. buildings.

Instead, the terms of the approved contract serve more to connect the two school systems on a bookkeeping level. For instance, students within the South Bend school corporation’s boundaries that attend Purdue Polytechnic count towards South Bend’s test scores, enrollment numbers and graduation rates.

On the other side, Purdue Polytechnic students now have a pathway to participating in sports or band programs at South Bend schools. The charter also said it could save money on food and transportation services by purchasing with South Bend on certain items.

The big kicker however, is South Bend schools agreeing to share its referendum funding with Purdue Polytechnic. The agreement calls for South Bend to pay Purdue $500 for every student in the district that opts for the charter school.

Since traditional school districts and charter schools often compete for students, and the state funding that comes with them, the partnership on its face seems counterintuitive to some and in fact, it’s the only partnership of its kind in St. Joseph County.

However, South Bend School Corporation’s chief of staff Rafi Nolan-Abrahamian said that new state laws, which will soon require traditional public schools to share referendum funding with charter schools, have forced the district to change its thinking.

“We do believe that South Bend schools will have to work hand in hand with charter schools should that situation arise and this offers an opportunity to begin to build those partnerships and be prepared,” Nolan-Abrahamian.

Nolan-Abrahamian added that the STEM-focused, project based learning Purdue Polytechnic offers is distinct from what South Bend schools does with its three larger high schools.

“What we want to emphasize is that entering into a partnership like this is not choosing fights and sides between charter schools and our traditional public school programs," he said.

Purdue Polytechnic currently operates in the Studebaker building on the south side of downtown and a spokeswoman said the high school has about 140 students in grades 9-12.

Purdue Polytechnic already has similar innovation agreements with two schools in the Indianapolis Public School system, where agreements between charter schools and the IPS district are more common.

The partnership will formally begin at the start of the new academic year on July 1, and both districts offered few specifics on what they plan to do with the new arrangement.

South Bend school employees were similarly brief in their presentation to the school board last week, speaking on the contract for just two minutes before turning the matter to the board.

The board approved the partnership in a 4-2 vote, with Jeannette McCullough and Mark Costello strongly opposing the measure.

“This is a charter school. We are a public school. Our tax dollars represent public schools, not charter schools. Why are we even at the table considering a charter school to take some of our kids from us,” McCullough asked.

McCullough noted that a previous attempt by South Bend schools to lease space to Purdue Polytechnic in Washington High School was met with stiff opposition that ultimately stopped a deal from moving forward. She and Costello also took issue with the leaders working hard to market Riley High School as the district’s STEM magnet program only to have Purdue Polytechnic be made available to them.

The new agreement does not call for a sharing of space in any South Bend school buildings, though the district has proposed a new career center which could potentially be located in the Studebaker building near where Purdue Polytechnic currently is.

School board members like John Anella who voted for the partnership said their hand is being forced by new state laws.

The law Anella references requires any traditional school district that successfully passes a tax referendum to share a percentage of that money with charter schools in the area. It does not require South Bend or any other district to share funding outside of referendum votes.

“We’re going to be sharing referendum funds with charter schools, every district will, it doesn’t matter where you are,” Anella said. “This is a meaningful partnership with a local school. It’s an opportunity to get out in front of this issue. There’s an advantage to us in that it counts towards our total enrollment.”

Marek Mazurek has been with WVPE since April 2023, though he's been in Michiana for most of his life. He has a particular interest in public safety reporting. When he's not on the radio, Marek enjoys getting way too into Notre Dame football and reading about medieval English history.