New Orleans Educator Dreams Of Teaching Tech To Beat The Streets

Apr 7, 2015
Originally published on April 7, 2015 3:49 pm

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina, much has been rebuilt in New Orleans — including the public schools. But the current education system is radically different from the one that people who grew up in New Orleans remember. Virtually all students in the city now attend charter schools. Many of their teachers are both new to New Orleans and new to teaching.

Jonathan Johnson began teaching social studies to eighth-graders at one of the city's charter schools in 2010. After a rough start, Johnson says he became known as the "warrior teacher" because his classroom was all about "fighting the war on low expectations for African-American youth."

In 2014, Johnson was a finalist for the Fishman Prize, a prestigious and highly selective teaching award. Now Johnson is hoping to create a new education experience through a concept he called Rooted Schools. I reached out to him to learn why he decided to teach in New Orleans and why he is now trying to develop a new charter school.

The trend toward a school system dominated by charters came out of crisis, but the pluses and minuses are still being debated. What, in your view, is working?

Since 2004, we are getting better at preparing kids, academically, for college. More students are qualifying for TOPS scholarships, graduating from high school, and ACT scores have risen. We're expelling fewer students. Our schools have more nonblack students. Over the past 10 years, thousands of committed, passionate and smart leaders have made significant strides for students in New Orleans public schools.

Tell us about Rooted School. Where did the concept come from and what do you hope to accomplish by creating it?

The design — and now piloting — of Rooted School began out of me noticing a glaring problem in our city's schools today: the gross disconnect between what we're teaching and where tomorrow's jobs are being created.

What we haven't seen is a significant change in student life outcomes. Visions of college help some, but kids know that college isn't a guarantee. And for a growing number of kids, it's another heavy financial burden on top of others they already know and carry. Streets are beating schools in the fight for the attention of so many of our young men. Our schools are missing a connection to something bigger, to a future that the kids could actually connect to from where they are today.

I understand this problem firsthand. ... I got angry about the tragic killings of kids I've worked so hard to teach, kids who were working hard, but couldn't escape the streets. I started looking for ways to do something about this a year ago: Rooted School will come to life this fall as a small-scale pilot for 15 students, designed as a school that can beat the streets in the fight for relevance with kids. It has the potential to shape what is possible in public schools nationally. Rooted gives kids something to connect to in their own city, something with the capacity to convince them there's a better choice than what's out there now, a choice that's only recently been added to the answer sheet: a career in software and tech.

Greater New Orleans Inc. reported that there are more than 7,000 jobs expected to open in the digital sector over the next 10 years. Most local companies also state that our city does not have the consistent local talent base to supply the rising need, so they will either have to supply with nonlocal talent or move their companies elsewhere. The state of Louisiana has even implemented a Digital Interactive Media and Software Development Incentive, which offers a 35 percent refundable tax credit on payroll ... for companies to hire in-state labor. A similar problem exists in five other high-growth regional industries.

I'm going to connect schooling to these amazing opportunities in tech and five other industry clusters, leveraging employers themselves in the training of our students for the jobs they will have available in the years to come.

If we do this successfully, we will remove the potential of poverty for our students by placing them on an entry-level path toward a financial independence.

What's next for New Orleans schools 10 years after Katrina? What can be done to make schools better?

I don't know what wave people will catch. I can say that I'm a part of a group called the Tiny School Project. We are small-scale pilots launching this summer and fall who aim to present new ideas for what the future of school could be in New Orleans. There's no other collective like this in the country, and we're really excited to see what comes of it.

As for what can be better, I have a few ideas:

1. Discover more low-risk ways to test out/pilot smaller versions of new school models. I'm not talking about the typical college prep charter school that we've seen before. I'm talking about school designs that are largely untested in the country (i.e. Rooted School, Noble Minds Institute for Whole Child Learning).

2. Incentivize the start of organizations like 4.0 Schools and Propeller who incubate leaders and businesses who are willing to rethink what school could be.

3. Create more options for career success than college. College doesn't promise the same return on investment as it once did and can cause more problems than solutions, especially for many of the students we serve in this city. Not to mention, most of the jobs that will become available in Louisiana over the next decade will be technical and won't require a four-year college degree. Our public schools haven't figured out a viable alternative for the students — like the 51 percent of black males in New Orleans who are unemployed.

Michel Martin travels to New Orleans on April 21 to moderate a live event on education 10 years after Katrina. It's a collaboration with member station WWNO. You can join the conversation using #NOLASCHOOLS.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


In the decade since Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans, the city has transformed in many ways. Maybe the most profound change has been in the schools, first taken over by the state and then turned into the most extensive charter school system in America. This morning, NPR's Michel Martin brings us a conversation with a New Orleans educator and educational entrepreneur.

MICHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Jonathan Johnson, thanks so much for joining us. You taught such social studies to eighth-graders at one of the charter schools in New Orleans. And after just a few years, you were a finalist for a very selective and prestigious teaching award, the Fishman Prize. Can you tell us just a little bit about your approach?

JONATHAN JOHNSON: So I came to New Orleans in 2010 to do Teach for America and got placed at KIPP Central City Academy in New Orleans. To put it mildly, it didn't go so well in the first two years. In the third year, I came back to build a classroom that I would put my own children in. And this is also the year where I became known as the warrior teacher because...

MARTIN: Warrior teacher.

JOHNSON: Warrior teacher because my classroom was all about fighting the war on low expectations for African-American youth in our country. The goal in the class was to prove the dominant narrative told about my students wrong. The students came to learn that the odds of their future success were stacked against them and how critical it was for them, for their communities and for their families to overcome those odds.

MARTIN: So you've been very candid about the fact - now, you just mentioned that the first year didn't go so well. The first and second years didn't go so well. I think you've actually described it more strongly than that - I think it was a disaster, actually (laughter).

JOHNSON: Yeah, yeah.

MARTIN: So what is it that went wrong, and how did you turn it around?

JOHNSON: Every class period, I could point to multiple moments within a given hour where I was confrontational with students or students were confrontational with me. You know, I remember moments when I would leave school - one particular moment when I was in my car, getting ready to leave at like 7 p.m., and shots went off. And the person that got shot walked up to my car and asked if I could rush him to the hospital. And I did and had a pool of blood, you know, on the seat of my passenger side of my car to show for it.

The defining moment for me was in my second year when one of my students, Ricky Summers, was murdered. Ricky, to give you context, came to the school in the fifth grade performing as a first-grader in reading and math. But by the time he was preparing to leave the eighth grade, at his funeral, they read the results of his EXPLORE test, which is a test we use to predict whether or not a student will qualify or what they will score the ACT. And they found out that he qualified or would have qualified for tops, which in Louisiana would've given him free tuition to any public state university.

And so it was the most personally challenging moment of my life - more personally challenging than paying my way through college. And it was challenging because there was no rulebook for how to lead a classroom of 100 students after the death of one of their classmates, let alone when that classmate is murdered by a former classmate.

MARTIN: Well, what effect do you think that had on you? Or how did that change what happened in the classroom?

JOHNSON: For me, I couldn't do what was asked of me. I was no longer invested in a classroom vision that revolved around heavy test prep or preparing kids for a pathway to higher education with no certainty around the outcomes of that education - that what these kids needed more were leaders that looked like them to show them the way out and how the way out is not always going to be pretty. But if we do what Tupac's "The Rose That Grew From Concrete" suggests - continue to stretch toward the sun, that we'll get there. And I say Tupac's poem because that's what we recited every day in my classroom for three years.

MARTIN: Give me a couple of lines, if you would.

JOHNSON: Did you hear about the rose that grew from a crack in the concrete, proving nature's law is wrong? It learned to walk without having feet. Funny, it seemed. But by keeping its dreams, it learned to breathe fresh air. Long live the rose that grew from concrete, when no one else ever cared.

MARTIN: What made you start the day with that?

JOHNSON: Because in a few short, powerful sentences, it captured my why, which was the ultimate message I wanted to translate to kids in every lesson, in every artifact I had in the classroom. And that is that by being low-income and in our case black in America, what we are aiming to do every day is achieve what others do not think is possible and what many of our families do not think is possible for us because they don't know any better or haven't seen anyone do it themselves.

MARTIN: You've taken a year off from teaching because you now want to create your own model, your own educational experience. You're still in the piloting stage. It's called Rooted School. What's behind that idea, and what do you hope to accomplish?

JOHNSON: Rooted School aims to help students discover their why. And the way that we do that is through aligning our kids' passions and interests with 21st-century, high-growth, high-wage jobs that will fast-track them to lives of financial independence and stability. We project over the next 10 years that more than 7,000 digital jobs will become available in New Orleans, not to mention the thousands of other jobs in other high-growth, high-wage fields. Yet no school locally - and I would argue nationally - is placing within its mission the goal to connect kids to these opportunities that are right in front of them.

MARTIN: Finally, before we let you go, I just wanted to ask, is there something you feel that New Orleans and New Orleans' experience with the charter school movement can teach other places around the country?

JOHNSON: I think New Orleans can teach us about the promise and potential of our education system and that that promise and potential is rooted in the choice that we give kids and their families around excellent schools and also the opportunities for folks like me to reimagine what is possible for public education for our kids.

MARTIN: I've been speaking with Jonathan Johnson. He is an award-winning teacher in New Orleans, a finalist for the 2014 Fishman Prize. And he is the founder of Rooted School in New Orleans. Jonathan Johnson, thanks so much for speaking with us today.

JOHNSON: Thank you so much for this opportunity, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.