This article originally appeared in the January 2020 issue of New Orleans Magazine.
Rooted School, an open-enrollment high school Uptown, has a bold goal: it strives to prepare its students to graduate with a college acceptance in one hand and a job offer in the other.
To get there, their team has designed the school around how students actually learn, instead of what school has always looked like.
“We need to reimagine school in this country. Our models are outdated and they’re not serving kids,” said Kaitlin Karpinski, Rooted’s principal. “Rooted is reimagining what solutions to these challenges look like.”
That belief dictates everything from the style of a lesson to the structure of a day. Rooted knows that teenagers perform better when they get adequate sleep and are ready to learn, so the start of the school day is pushed later than most high schools, beginning at 8:30am with breakfast and advisory before launching into classes at nine. School continues until 4pm.
For much of the day, Rooted students direct their learning at their own pace. Other times, they’re in very small groups or small classes. And as they work toward the required state grade-level expectations, they’re also developing skills—like software development, cloud-based computing, and using professional design software and 3D printing—that are necessary for our region’s high-demand technology jobs. They also work collaboratively on projects about how technology can be used to solve problems in our local community, like a lack of affordable housing.
All this is shaped and bolstered by Rooted’s strong partnerships with local technology companies, who have identified their high-demand and hard-to-fill entry-level roles. Rooted and the companies partner to plan out a four-year course of learning to prepare students for such roles, if they want them.
And as students prepare, Rooted optimizes the conditions that help them thrive—from self-paced discovery to strategic rest. “Kids are not robots,” says Karpinski. “They need a break during the day, just like adults.” So Rooted provides a brief “flex” time each day where students can explore different interests—like magic club, student council, or guitar club—or simply sit and relax.
“If we don’t give kids the adaptive skills of how to navigate their own learning and stay organized, then we can’t deliver on our mission of financial freedom for every child,” Karpinski says.
Rooted’s approach to discipline is also based on real-world, proven strategies of restorative practices, instead of time-worn behavior management tactics. A student who makes a mistake is encouraged to repair any harm they’ve caused and have a real conversation about what went wrong. This builds a culture that is warm, supportive, and productive, as students are empowered to be their best selves and given the chance to try again when something goes wrong.
Karpinski recalls a student for whom things were often going wrong. He struggled with behavior and he was failing almost all his classes. He’d come to Rooted with a heavy suspension record from his previous school. After one incident, this student insisted that Karpinski and the school’s founder, Jonathan Johnson, should just suspend him. He had given up on his own ability to stay in school. But instead of suspending this young man, Karpinski and her team rallied around him with support. They looked at what he really needed, socially and academically, and provided it. This student received targeted small group instruction, access to art therapy, and the extra help he needed to learn in his own way. By the end of his freshman year, he had all of his academic credits on track and stood out for his scholarship and his positive participation.
Rooted is committed to providing that type of thoughtful, individualized attention to every child.
After launching with just 40 students in 2017, Rooted now educates 160 young people in grades 9-11. Next year, they’ll have fully expanded with a senior class. Over 23% of their students receive special education services, and Rooted provides them with an equally rigorous, inclusive, supportive education as any other student schoolwide. Across the school, teachers have warm, caring relationships with every student while pushing them academically and as young professionals. Students want to be there; in 2017-18 and 2018-19, their yearly attendance averages were above 92%.
This student-centered, future-focused environment is yielding results. Rooted School has met or exceeded the New Orleans citywide average for English state assessments since its inception. Their current juniors made over 4.4 years of average reading growth in the two-year period of their freshman and sophomore years. And over 80% of their students have earned one or more industry-based credentials (IBCs). It’s clear that, over the next decade and beyond, when we look to our city’s leaders in the tech industry, we’ll see Rooted alumni in their ranks.