Bold and creative outreach addresses college and career readiness

PPHS builds new K-12 pathways that lead to Purdue, especially for Hoosier students who are underserved by traditional high schools and underrepresented in higher education.

Purdue Polytechnic HS provides pathway to Purdue for underrepresented minority students

As Gary Bertoline was transforming Purdue University’s former College of Technology into Purdue Polytechnic Institute, two ideas struck him in a goal to include more high-impact educational practices for preparing students for an era of advanced manufacturing and technology.

* What if you could start teaching those foundational practices in high school and preparing teenagers for the unknown jobs of tomorrow?

* What if Purdue started a high school that addressed those issues as well as provided a transformational education experience and built a pipeline to Purdue for underserved and underrepresented communities?

Bertoline, dean of Purdue Polytechnic, set out after consulting and in partnership with Purdue President Mitch Daniels and the Board of Trustees on one of the greatest passion projects in his educational career: launching a polytechnic-based high school that re-imagined education in an underserved area of Indianapolis.

Gary Bertoline, dean of Purdue Polytechnic Institute. (Purdue University photo)

Bertoline met with scores of community leaders before launching the first Purdue Polytechnic High School in 2015. It would take another two years of hard work, persistence and ingenuity to open the school on July 31, 2017, in a temporary location.

“The hardest thing to do is change from within. Change happens because someone decides we need to do it. We’ve learned a lot from changing the college to help get the high school going. We’re showing that you can do this and be highly successful.

Gary Bertoline

Helping students who know they want more

The university created the Purdue Polytechnic High Schools (PPHS) to build new K-12 pathways that lead to Purdue, especially for Hoosier students who are underserved by traditional high schools and underrepresented in higher education.

Established in 2017, the growing, multi-school PPHS system immerses students and their families in an innovative learning community. PPHS offers tuition free, authentic, STEM-focused experiences that prepare high school students for a successful future. These experiences include internships, industry projects, dual-credit courses and technical certifications. PPHS also offers its students a unique path to college; graduates who achieve Purdue’s admission requirements are assured admission to one of Purdue’s over 200 majors.

Today, there are three PPHS campuses. In addition to PPHS Schweitzer Center located on Indianapolis’ east side, there is the North campus near Indianapolis’ Broad Ripple neighborhood and PPHS South Bend.

PPHS addresses students who could see no meaning with their high school experience.

“These are students who are just going through the motions. They are doing whatever they can do to get their diploma and then get a job,” Bertoline says.

“These students don’t think they can learn. We created this PPHS curriculum that is much more applied and real-world. Students actually see how math is used and applied and has relevance instead of doing some numbers out of a book. We believe there is another pathway.”

Bertoline says the PPHS curriculum also can rebuild the middle class by opening students’ eyes to careers they haven’t even considered.

“Every manufacturer in Indiana cannot find enough workers. These are high-paying jobs in advanced manufacturing. It can really rebuild our nation and rebuild our middle class if we spend more time preparing high school students in a different way so they can add value when they graduate high school. They can have confidence when they go on to college or get additional training on the job.”

PPHS Schweitzer Center at Englewood is an innovation school through a partnership with Indianapolis Public Schools. PPHS North and PPHS South Bend are public charter schools.  

As part of its learning mission, PPHS encourages students to work in teams to find innovative and creative ways using open-ended problem-solving to address real-world issues that don’t have a single answer.

“One of our callings is to be innovative. We take risks here. Outside thinking can make a difference,” Bertoline says. “We focus on grand challenge problems and we’re exposing them to these ideas. These students are brilliant with their solutions. They turn it into a learning experience. If they make a mistake, they back up, figure it out and move on.”

Building the pipeline and providing access

As Indiana’s land-grant university, Purdue serves all residents through numerous programs and outreach efforts. Scott Bess, head of PPHS, sees PPHS as one of those outreaches.

“This is being true to that land-grant mission. We had to put our name and reputation on the line. We had to do something bold about it,” he says.

Bess says the partnership with IPS in Marion County will grow access to Purdue.

Scott Bess, head of schools for PPHS. (Purdue University photo)

From 2016 to 2020, IPS sent 47 underrepresented minorities and 34 white students to Purdue. With the upcoming graduation of the first class from PPHS Schweitzer Center this spring, PPHS could be sending up to 48 students to Purdue – 24 of them underrepresented minorities – for fall 2021.

“If you want to go into a STEM field, you need to go to Purdue. If you look at the economic drivers in Indiana – it’s technology, advanced manufacturing, life sciences, health care. If we are going to fill that workforce, you have to have talent,” Bess says. “We have to tap into this community that has been way underrepresented in all these fields. Employers are looking to increase diversity. Diversity leads to better outcomes, better products and better solutions. You can’t have diversity if you don’t have a pipeline.”

Students and families who come to PPHS are looking for something different. Some want a more intimate learning environment or for a pathway to Purdue. Others are seeking a second chance at lifelong learning.

Students work on eight to 10 passion projects throughout a year. Previous projects have included designing business plans for hydroponics, addressing climate change and food deserts in Indianapolis, as well as partnerships with area businesses on some of the real-world issues they face in industry.

And Bess has seen many students thrive.

“You have a voice and choice that you don’t see in some other places. It’s important for teenagers to have some control over what they get to do during the day,” Bess says. “They are using their ability and creativity. We’re on this journey together.”

The long-term goal is after the students graduate from Purdue that they return to their hometowns and start filling those STEM jobs — or even start their own businesses.

The future: What’s next for PPHS?

Bertoline and Bess are looking for 100 high schools in Indiana to adopt all or some parts of the PPHS curriculum to start making changes in the local education systems.

“Those 100 become the leaders. We have other cities and people from around the country who are looking at us,” Bertoline says. “The quality of your education shouldn’t be based on your zip code.”

PPHS has plans to open another four to five schools in population centers across Indiana.

“The real growth and real scale happen when there are collaborations. We are collaborating with traditional school districts where they could do something,” Bess says. “With the technology we are using during the pandemic, there is no reason a student in a rural Indiana school can’t partner with a PPHS student in downtown Indianapolis.”

Bess wants to continue capturing and growing the talents of students of all ages.

“My passion is bringing about change. We can show it can be done in the most difficult of circumstances,” Bess says. “We owe it as a country to our young people – let’s do something different. We have part of the answer. You can dare to do something different at the high school level. But you’ll have all of these other experiences. There’s talent to solve it.”

For more information on student registration, donations or business partnerships, and media requests, contact PPHS Network Office at