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New Orleans’ Rooted School Is Innovating for Equity

What the pandemic taught one school about the importance of innovation and the power of community.

November 17, 2020

When 2010 Teach For America alumnus Jonathan Johnson was teaching at a local KIPP school, he noticed that the city’s highest-paying and most in-demand jobs were in the digital sector. While the number of jobs in tech-related industries were projected to grow significantly in the next decade, local companies also reported that New Orleans did not have the consistent local talent-base to supply this growing need. Jonathan saw that opportunity for his students to enter into a financially rewarding career, if only they had  access to the skills and training to do so.

As Jonathan says, “there is a gross disconnect between what we're teaching and where tomorrow's jobs are being created.”

An Innovative Charter School is Born

At the same time, Jonathan was deeply influenced by the tragic death of one of his students. This experience brought a sense of urgency to his work and led him to start Rooted School, a charter in New Orleans with a unique digital learning approach that serves students from across the city.

The school's mission is to put students on a personalized pathway to financial freedom by ensuring that, by the time they graduate, they have a job offer in one hand and a college acceptance letter in the other.

Rooted School focuses on preparing students to be successful in the digital age by providing them with tech industry credentials and training. Rooted’s doors opened in 2017 with 40 students and since has grown significantly, most recently opening another school in Indianapolis.

As the school grew, so did its team. Kaitlin Karpinski, a 2008 TFA alumna, was a member of the founding leadership team and moved fully into the role of school leader for the New Orleans location in 2018. Originally from Pennsylvania, Kaitlin joined TFA after doing service work in the Lower Ninth Ward and St. Bernard Parish following Hurricane Katrina.

Responding to COVID-19

Because of Rooted School’s innovative approach to equitable access to technology and digital learning, Kaitlin and Jonathan’s team was well-prepared when schools closed in March.

“Our school and instructional model already integrates one-to-one technology and is largely technology-based, so we found the transition to distance learning challenging but not impossible,” Kaitlin says.

Being ahead of the game on technology and virtual learning allowed the Rooted team to focus on ensuring that students’ basic needs were being met and to address any issues of equity that their students may be facing, specifically around access to technology and stable internet at home.

The school’s educators also began to discuss how to assess student learning.

“The biggest piece so far has been engagement,” Kaitlin says. “We wanted to ensure that our kids are intellectually engaged and were given formative checks for understanding throughout the learning process.”

Talia Livneh works with a student in her classroom at Rooted School. (Photo was taken prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.)

Aiding the Community—and Being Inspired By It

Throughout the process of adapting to life in a pandemic, Kaitlin has continued to be inspired by the collective innovation and resilience of our city.

“New Orleans is no stranger to seemingly insurmountable challenges and adversity,” she says, noting that she pulls her inspiration from the people of New Orleans and their incredible strength in the face of crisis.

Kaitlin points to one of her 10th grade students as an example. “I’m floored by all that she is owning and is responsible for and yet her focus, drive and determination are still as strong as ever when she thinks about her education,” Kaitlin says. “She’s an example of kids everywhere—they’re experiencing a pandemic for the first time, yet simultaneously are also family contributors who have to take on a variety of responsibilities. When I think about what our kids need right now, they need a lot of understanding and patience because they have a lot on their plates.”

“[Our students] are experiencing a pandemic for the first time, yet are also family contributors who have to take on a variety of responsibilities. When I think about what our kids need right now, they need a lot of understanding and patience because they have a lot on their plates.”

Kaitlin Karpinski

School Leader, Rooted School

Greater New Orleans Corps Member 2008

Rooted teacher Talia Livneh, a 2013 Greater New Orleans alumna, agrees.

“I have been inspired by students who have taken these shifts in stride, and who show up every day in a situation that they have never encountered before,” Talia says.

She has been humbled and amazed by how teachers, administrators, and school staff have risen to the occasion during this crisis.

“This experience has reaffirmed my belief that educators are some of the most incredible and brilliant people in the world!” she said.

At Rooted, the learning and innovation continues as they work to create equitable opportunities for students.

“We still have so much to learn about how to ensure all children who come through our doors find a personal path to financial freedom,” Jonathan says. “However, we happen to have clear, inspiring goals that we’re working towards. We also have a culture that allows us to make mistakes so our brains can get bigger faster. That’s a potent combination when navigating the unknown.”

The Rooted team has learned a lot about how to support their students during a pandemic. Kaitlin has found watching the community come together to support each other profoundly moving.

“Our community is just unstoppable,” Kaitlin says. “I couldn’t be prouder of being part of the Rooted community and the New Orleans community. I couldn’t be prouder of the work that we’re doing to make sure that our people come first.”