While serving as an 8th-grade teacher in post-Katrina New Orleans, Jonathan Johnson enrolled in a fellowship with 4.0, a national nonprofit that invests in new, community-centered models of education, and provides coaching, curriculum, community and cash to those with the imagination to create a more equitable education ecosystem.
As part of the second cohort of 4.0 innovators, Johnson began to imagine and then experiment with a new high school model aiming at social and economic mobility. He learned that the average youth born in New Orleans is earning $30,000 a year by the age of 35, but there is a $40,000 gap in median household income between white and Black families.
To attack the income gap, in 2014, Johnson founded The Rooted School Foundation to accelerate upward mobility for underserved youth by ensuring students graduate with a job offer in one hand and a college acceptance letter in the other.
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The following year, while a fellow at Camelback Ventures, Johnson received a charter. And, after piloting within a high school, the first official Rooted School opened in New Orleans in 2017. Another post-Katrina Teach For America alum, Kaitlin Karpinski was Johnson’s assistant school leader at Rooted School.
Last month, Rooted School opened the school year at Southern University at New Orleans campus in Gentilly. The campus location enables an integrated early college experience with college classes offered right across the hall from high school classes.
The small school has a strong culture where the 150 diverse students express voice and choice in learning. They are supported by an art therapist and several educators trained in special education.
Rooted Schools exist to provide “personal pathways to financial freedom.” Work-based learning starts the freshman year with career exposure opportunities. Sophomores conduct a one week internship. Juniors and seniors do an eight week paid summer internship. They are piloting Friday internships (with a four-day week for teachers).
Another Rooted School opened in Indianapolis in 2020 with plans to open in Vancouver, Washington and Las Vegas, Nevada next year.
Karpinski, now head of school in New Orleans said the school day starts at 8:25 with an advisory period where students work on career plans and job skills. Eight out of 10 Rooted School graduates earned at least one tech industry credential. About half go on to college and the other half take one the of the job offers they’ve received.
To further support graduates going to work, Rooted launched a Green Balloon Fellowship, a one year paid STEM internship that includes high-touch wrap-around strategies and credentialed learning.
With support from 4.0, Rooted launched a Youth Cash Transfer Study where 10 seniors received $50 per week for a year. Analysis by the Center for Guaranteed Income Research at the University of Pennsylvania showed positive results including improved family financial health, and improved financial literacy and mental wellbeing among the students. The goal is to expand the program to 230 students in New Orleans and Indianapolis. (Listen to the student developed Rooted Cash Podcast series for more.)
In her 2021 book, Making It, Stephanie Krauss argued that young people need four currencies needed to thrive in our society: competencies, connections, credentials, and cash. Rooted School is one of the few systems working on all four.
Rooted School is emerging as a national microschool network blending college credit, work experience and industry credentials (a nimble, next-gen P-TECH cousin) with strong supports in student-centered environments. It’s also an economic mobility platform that will help all of us better understand the role work and income plays in mobility.