Purdue Polytechnic High School principal helps students write their story, innovate for the future
The main staircase at the Purdue Polytechnic High School Schweitzer Center at Englewood is just that — a non-descript staircase with steps, handrails and wood-finished wall.
But to Juan Ramos, a senior and a member of the school’s first graduating class, he sees that wall and those ascending steps as more. He sees it as a point of pride and inspiration. He shared his thoughts with PPHS Principal Shatoya Ward over lunch during the fall semester.
“Juan sat down next to me and told me all of the things he has learned while at PPHS. He has a postsecondary plan. He told me his plans for his life. He said we should put pictures or plaques of the graduating seniors on that wall,” Ward says. “I asked him why we should do that, and he said, ‘One day I’d like to bring my kids up here and let them see me on that wall.’
“He was so serious about bringing his family back here to show them his picture. He is so proud that he is here. PPHS is a place where students can write their story.”
Changing pathways, moments of reflection
Ward always had a plan for what she wanted to be while growing up on Indianapolis’ east side. Even when the family moved to the west side, she was still pursuing her goal of becoming a nurse, then a nurse practitioner and, ultimately, an obstetrician.
Ward excelled at her schoolwork and was accepted into Marian University’s nursing program. She faced all of her clinicals and classwork with precision and accuracy.
Then something happened.
“I was on top of the world,” Ward says. “Then I got into the hospital for my clinicals. It just didn’t quite feel right. I couldn’t see myself going to a hospital every day for a career. I needed to figure myself out.”
Ward tested herself by becoming a YMCA camp counselor for a summer. She worked 12-hour days, spending time with 65 children and four counselors.
“It was the most fulfilling summer I’ve ever had. I just enjoyed those kids so much. I still have contact with some of the kids today,” Ward says. “At the end of the summer, I said this is where I need to be. I had to go with my heart.”
The call to start something new
Ward taught high school and middle school science in Indianapolis Public Schools for seven years. She transitioned to a charter school and then helped launch the Excel Center by Goodwill, where for six years she taught adults who were getting their high school diplomas and certifications for jobs.
She noticed trends and deficits in adult learners and started seeking answers on better engaging students in classes to equip them with real-world skills and soft skills, such as how to have a conversation, be on time and more. She sees those skills as building blocks to address complex problems and skills for the future. Those discussions led her to the position as founding principal at PPHS Schweitzer Center.
Purdue created the Purdue Polytechnic High Schools to serve as an engine of upward mobility by building a pipeline of low-income and minority students to counteract the unacceptably small number emerging from the public education system — not just in Indiana, but nationwide. The schools provide students authentic, STEM-focused experiences that will prepare them for a successful future. These experiences include internships, industry projects, dual credit courses and technical certifications.
Today, there are three Purdue Polytechnic High School campuses. In addition to PPHS Schweitzer Center on Indianapolis’ east side, there is the North campus near Indianapolis’ Broad Ripple neighborhood and, new this year, Purdue Polytechnic High School South Bend. PPHS also offers its students a unique path to college; graduates who achieve Purdue’s admission requirements can gain admission to one of Purdue’s over 200 majors.
Ward says the schools offer a much-needed path forward to the students it serves.
“Passion is the one thing that is missing in schools,” Ward says. “What if we built a school that way, with exposure to careers and skills in STEM? There are a variety of careers with STEM. There are lawyers who focus on technology, and physicians and nurses who treat the whole being of a patient. There are a wide range of careers that are labeled STEM that encompass so much more.”
Renovated building, reinvigorating communities
Ward arrives each day at 6:30 a.m. at the PR Mallory Building at 3029 E. Washington St. Her calendar is packed with meetings with students, parents, coaches and staff, as well as addressing operational and building issues.
Ward enjoys interacting with students and staff, even as the school operates under e-learning. Before the transition to e-learning, the school used a hybrid model during the COVID-19 pandemic where groups of students came two days a week for in-person classes and did online learning the other three days.
“I am so grateful for the community,” Ward says. “They are for our students and being part of the school. Our classes are beyond our walls. Our community embraces that.”
The school focuses on underrepresented minorities in Indianapolis. There are 540 students enrolled this year. The school will graduate 125 seniors this spring, 48 of whom are expected to be accepted to Purdue through the direct admit program. The school is diverse with 30% white, 30% Black, 25% Hispanic and 15% other ethnic backgrounds. Two-thirds of the students come from Indianapolis Public Schools and Center Township; one-third from other parts of Indianapolis and central Indiana.
Having ties to Purdue hasn’t hurt enrollment, either. Under the common enrollment system for Marion County schools, it’s easy to enroll because there are no prerequisites. Parents can complete the form with PPHS as the top option.
Ward credits the parents for having the courage to enroll their students at PPHS Schweitzer Center.
“They are taking a big risk, as we are not like other high schools. We do some things so differently than other schools,” she says.
The values of the school are why the school has been successful in a short time. Effective communication, excellent collaboration and a spirit of innovation are talked about each day.
Innovation is found throughout the school. It can be seen throughout the design of the physical facility. Features such as garage doors are both reflective of the building’s past and a nod to creating open and flexible spaces to the various projects the students work on daily.
“I love how this building was a battery plant and how now our students are reviving that spirit of innovation,” she says. “We can take that and move forward with it.”
The building isn’t the only thing that is flexible. Each student begins and ends the day with their personalized learning community, where they also build community with their teachers, also called coaches.
“Coaches can bring in additional resources for students. The students are not restricted. They can talk to any one of the 45 staff members they have a connection with. We have space for them to reflect or whatever they need to do to get back on track for the day,” Ward says.
By Matthew Oates