Purdue taps Goodwill exec to lead its Indy STEM high school

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Purdue University has tapped a well-known leader in Indiana education to lead its first Purdue Polytechnic High School, which will aim to serve as a pipeline for Indianapolis students to the West Lafayette university.

Scott Bess, who is currently president and chief operating officer of Goodwill Education Initiatives in Indianapolis, will become the first “head of school” for the polytechnic high school, Purdue officials announced Monday. Set to open in 2017, it will focus on serving previously underrepresented students with real-world experiences in the science, technology, engineering and math fields.

scott bessScott Bess

“It’s, in essence, trying to reinvent high school," Bess said. "This isn’t about getting the smartest kid in Indiana to come to Purdue. They’re already doing that. It’s about getting the student who otherwise wouldn’t be coming to Purdue and getting them prepared in a way that doesn’t exist today.”

Bess, who has been with Goodwill for 16 years, currently oversees 11 Excel Centers around the state. Those schools serve teens and adults who had previously dropped out of school and equip them with high school diplomas. He will officially start at Purdue on July 5.

“I lost sleep over this decision,” Bess said. “But we’ve built an incredible team [at Goodwill] and have built something that’s resonated around the state. Purdue was very generous in their trust in me.”

Besides acting as a pipeline for students to eventually attend Purdue, Bess said the school hopes each student graduates with a high school diploma, a technical certification and some college credit, so students can immediately enter the workforce trained for a good-paying job if that’s the best option for them.

A key focus of the school will be forging partnerships with local employers. Purdue hopes to incorporate its alumni base in and around Indianapolis by assigning each student a mentor working out in the community. Purdue also hopes to have students work on real-life projects in partnership with businesses, and take part in internships in the community.

“There’s businesses large and small that depend on highly qualified workers in technical fields, ranging from highly trained people like engineers to people who can understand how to run and operate machines,” Bess said. “We want to get all those businesses connected with the school and leverage that in as big a way as we possibly can.”

The curriculum is being designed by Purdue faculty members and will differ from that of a traditional high school.

“Our success will depend on the great developmental work of our Purdue faculty, blending K-12 and post-secondary education with an infusion of industry leadership and partnerships to provide our students with groundbreaking opportunities,” said Gary Bertoline, dean of Purdue Polytechnic Institute.

For example, Bess said, students typically attend separate math, English, science and social studies classes.

“This will be much more integrated,” Bess said. “The students themselves may not have an English class, but the English standards will be taught in conjunction with what we’re learning in science. It will be centered around projects and hands-on learning.”

The school likely will be established within Indianapolis Public Schools as an “innovation network school,” which means it will serve IPS students but be run independently. The IPS school board will hear the proposal Tuesday.

The school is expected to be downtown and plans to enroll its first class of 150 ninth-graders in 2017.

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