New Orleans School Aims to Put Students on Fast Track to Flourish in College and Career

At Rooted School, at-risk kids focus on earning job offers and college acceptance letters

Jonathan Johnson knows what success looks like for his students at Rooted School in New Orleans.

It’s not measured merely in higher test scores and graduation rates. It’s measured by a very specific outcome – each Rooted graduate is able to pursue and access every career and educational opportunity they want.

“We want all of our kids to get acceptance letters to four-year colleges - and we want them to have full-time job offers,” says Jonathan, the school’s founder.

“We want to equip our kids to have options so they can live their lives on their own terms, as soon as possible. Whatever path is going to accelerate their journey to financial freedom.”

It is an ambitious goal for any high school student, particularly for at-risk kids growing up in New Orleans.

Jonathan Johnson, founder of Rooted School in New Orleans

Jonathan, a former eighth-grade teacher at KIPP Central City Academy in New Orleans, developed the model for Rooted School in the wake of a tragedy that transformed his opinion about the most-pressing educational needs for students living in the inner city.

A few years ago, one of Jonathan’s students was murdered by a former classmate in a drug deal gone bad. The student who died, Ricky Summers, excelled at school and was on course to be awarded a full college tuition scholarship for academic excellence.

Jonathan realized that economic stress was the underlying factor in Ricky’s death.

“Here was a kid who was the poster child of a success story. He worked hard. He was gritty. He was on track to receive a full tuition scholarship to any state university in Louisiana, in eighth grade. And still that wasn’t enough to help him address the cumulative effects of poverty,” Jonathan says.

“What students really need is to be able to ‘take care of you and yours’ sooner.”

One way to do that, Jonathan believes, is by providing a technology-focused education that gives students the skills to work in high-wage, high-growth industries straight out of high school. He learned there was a likely shortage in New Orleans of qualified candidates for thousands of digital-sector jobs that are expected to be created over the next decade.

Jonathan built his school from concept to reality through collaboration with several partners committed to investing in educational innovation. With seed capital and research and development funding from 4.0 Schools and New Schools for New Orleans, Jonathan piloted Rooted School in 2015 within an existing New Orleans high school.

He then earned a fellowship from Camelback Ventures, an entrepreneurship incubator to help education leaders from underrepresented communities turn great ideas for students and schools into reality. Finally, he received a startup grant from the Walton Family Foundation to launch Rooted School in the fall of 2017 with 40 ninth-grade students.

Students spend mornings in general education classes and afternoons taking technology courses. Rooted School has forged partnerships with several tech companies to develop curriculum and provide internships to prepare students for work after graduation.

“We are establishing a pipeline of talent to tech companies. We’re doing that by treating these companies as the customer and their entry-level openings as the opportunity,” Jonathan says.

“They help design our curriculum with those entry-level jobs in mind.”

The school’s first year went “better than my wildest dreams,” Jonathan says.

The ninth-grade students made strong gains in reading and 80% of kids are positioned to earn at least one employer-validated credential in front-end web design. Rooted’s entire teaching team is returning for the 2018-19 school year.

Rooted School will grow to serve 100 students in 2018. By 2020, the school will serve 240 students.

Jonathan says the school intends to develop a formal process for advising graduating students on how to choose between college or a full-time job upon graduation.

“The goal is ultimately to beat the streets in the fight for these kids’ lives,” Jonathan says.