New Orleans charter school offers students technical degrees, and the opportunity for high-paying jobs | education

When Zee Sussman was in the eighth grade and attended a high school fair, Jonathan Johnson stood out among the other presenters. Using a 3D printer as a prop, he told the students what tech certifications they could get at his school, and that he hoped to send students out into the real world with high-paying job offers.

Sussman, who said she didn’t get any extra money growing up, was an addict. After a year at Eleanor McMain High School in New Orleans and some time homeschooling, Sussman completed her first year at Rooted School, during which she was hired on the Ochsner Health System’s internal services team. The fixed salary gave her a measure of financial freedom: Now 19, she said she started saving for the future, perhaps for college without incurring debt, or to buy a house.

“We’re tired of just living for another check, and I don’t have to do that,” Sussman said.

Variety of tracks

Rooted School is an open enrollment high school that aims to prepare its students for financial freedom through a variety of pathways. After graduation, Sussman embarked on a one-year fellowship at Ochsner, working mostly remotely in the Information Services department, doing customer service work and troubleshooting technical issues.

She was a member of Rooted’s first graduating class. Students there take typical high school lessons – math, history, English and the like – but also spend two hours a day learning technology skills ranging from programming to graphic design. The school hopes that 180 students will graduate with five to 10 certificates, making them attractive employees immediately after they graduate from high school.

“We want the kids to cross the stage with graduation with a job offer in one hand and a college acceptance letter in the other,” said school principal Caitlin Karpinski.

Shamil Person works as a graphics editor and design program during class at Rooted School in New Orleans on March 24, 2022.

On a recent weekday morning, Karpinski walked down the brightly lit hall of the rooted classroom filling a wing of Southern University’s campus in New Orleans. Greet students by name. In a digital media class, students’ heads were buried in their computers while they worked on design projects. In another class, Shamille Person used the Adobe Illustrator tool to design an advertisement for her jewelry business.

Among the first batch of 38 students to graduate from the Rutted School, Johnson said, in 2021, most of those who wanted to go to college with ample scholarships went to schools like Tulane, Villanova and Case Western Reserve. Those who wanted to join the workforce got jobs, too, with a minimum of $32,000 in base salary.

Seven alumni have participated in the school’s Green Balloon Fellowship—Sussman at Ochsner and others at Entergy, Lucid, Square Button, Revelry, and Align. Fellows are supported with coursework before they begin their careers and mentorship from Rooted staff.

Karpinski said industry partners have told Rooted leaders that with the rapid pace of technological change, they want to see students accredited into as many programs as possible.

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the roots

A former member of Teach for America who came to New Orleans in 2010, Johnson founded Rooted School in 2017. He said he began thinking more about education and wealth during his second year of teaching, when one of his students sold drugs after he ran out of money. Necessity shot dead. Johnson said that student would have gone to college if his life had not been taken.

Johnson likened New Orleans to a “tale of two cities,” with a $40,000 annual household income gap between black and white residents. A 2016 report by the Institute for Policy Studies found that it would take 228 years for the average wealth of black families to catch up with the average wealth of white families nationwide after years of racist policies. It’s a statistic that’s often repeated in Rooted.

Roots School

Students switch classes at Rooted School in New Orleans on March 24, 2022.

With the tech sector booming in New Orleans, Johnson hoped to bridge the gap to high-paying jobs that don’t necessarily require an expensive college degree.

So Johnson and his team dreamed up the radical school, as a shift from “a college or bankruptcy mentality, where the only path to financial freedom was a four-year degree,” he said. For many students, even those who qualify for college admissions, earning $35,000 at age 18 will qualify them for a lifetime of economic success and upward mobility without college debt, Johnson said. He said that if graduates earned that salary at 18, they could make 35 more. That could be put toward sending their kids to college or creating a generational fortune, he said.

future path

As the fellowship year draws to a close, Sussman hopes to continue working at Ochsner or another similar job, keeping savings and earning a college degree. She has set her sights on climbing the career ladder, perhaps as a software engineer, in securing her financial future.

“I didn’t even know what freedom was until I started working at Ochsner,” she said.

For Johnson, helping students in this way may be the key to preventing violence like what happened to his student who was murdered. He hopes to expand the Green Balloon Fellowship to more students and partner companies.

“The models show that we can lift people out of poverty, and faster…. You are accelerating the timeline in which a person would be able to move incrementally,” Johnson said.

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