New Orleans

Do black students really need college to get high paying jobs?

An educator bets a school focused on tech careers, not college, will launch students of color to the middle class

Photo of Jonathan Johnson, founder of Rooted School

Photo of Jonathan Johnson, founder of Rooted School

NEW ORLEANS – The path from poverty to the middle class doesn’t have to go through college. Jonathan Johnson, a former teacher in New Orleans, thinks there’s a quicker way for more African-American youth to reach high paying jobs in this city of sharp racial and economic divides.

That’s why he’s launching Rooted School, a high school that plans to train students to enter jobs in fields like 3D printing, software development and programming right after graduation. After spending four years teaching at KIPP Central City Academy, part of a charter school network famous for its laser focus on getting poor students to and through college, Johnson decided charters needed to stop seeing any kind of vocational training as a trap for students deemed not college material.

But that conviction – that anything less than “college for all” is harmful, even racist –has thrown up roadblocks to Johnson’s quest to bring the world of coding boot camps into high school.

“Schools interested in anything besides college still aren’t seen as rigorous. This is very personal to people, they’ll ask ‘If I send my kid to your school, will they go to college?’” said Johnson. “They will admit, ‘I can’t do any of the things that your kids are doing.’ But what we’re doing still isn’t being seen as as rigorous as an [Advanced Placement] English or math class.”

Rooted was supposed to open in the fall of 2016. The launch date was pushed back to August 2017 as he sought more private funding to supplement the public school funding stream all charters receive.

“Unless you are tied to a charter network like KIPP or YES Prep, it’s very hard to get enough startup capital to do what I’m doing,” said Johnson, an emphatic speaker who tends to talk with his hands. “I’ve approached almost everyone I can think of.”

Rooted is part of a larger national effort to get young people of color into tech. Another program, The Hidden Genius Project, based in Oakland, California, runs a free 15-month computer science boot camp for black boys still in high school. Together these initiatives look to diversify an industry dominated by white and Asian men. In a 2015 Fortune Magazine survey of nine tech giants – titans like LinkedIn, Facebook, and Google – six of those companies reported that black and Hispanic employees made up less than 10 percent of their representative workforces. That’s in keeping with national statistics. In 2013, the Census Bureau reported that African Americans and Latino have consistently been underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.

Related: A state embraces the idea that not everyone needs to go to college

In 2011, blacks made up 11 percent of the nation’s workforce but just 6 percent of Americans working in STEM, up from 2 percent in 1970. Hispanics, who make up 15 percent of the total workforce, make up 7 percent of those in STEM.

Charter schools, especially in cities like New Orleans, have sought to bridge such divides with an intense focus on pushing their students toward bachelor’s degrees. In the effort to close major academic gaps – just about half of the city’s public school students scored an 18 or better on the ACT college admissions exam, which is considered college ready – many charters have implemented tough discipline measures and rigid curricula to catch students up.

Johnson believes to succeed in the tech sector, students need the opposite approach.

Last year, Johnson split his time between co-running a small pilot program for just over a dozen students inside an existing charter school, Algiers Technology Academy, and travelling the country looking for backers for his nascent project. Students attended classes at Algiers, but most of their day was spent in courses run and designed by Johnson and his co-teacher Ashley Bowen. Inside the walls of Johnson’s Rooted classroom, the stricter rules enforced by Algiers don’t apply.

Running a high school like the Google campus can be tricky, though. One morning last school year, Johnson arrived looking to institute a “culture shift,” after realizing his rules might be a bit too relaxed, although he was still convinced that he must talk to his students as he would an adult.

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“It’s come to my attention that there has been a few problems with phones,” said Johnson in a classroom lined with the logos of local tech companies. “You need to place your phone either in your bag, leave it with me or place it on the shelves. I’ll take two questions on this.”

“Why?” one girl shouted.

“Inappropriate things are happening and we are not being productive,” Johnson shot back.

“Be specific, what is inappropriate?” she responded.

“Someone sent a message on Snapchat cursing other students out,” Johnson replied. “If you have a phone with you place it in your book bag or purse, you can use your phones during the breaks.”

Slowly, but surely, students slipped their phones into their bags, and got to work.

“It’s about unlearning learning culture,” said Johnson. “These kids have been controlled by bells and whistles for 11 to 12 years and now I’m giving these juniors and seniors autonomy, asking them to work in a somewhat messy place with all of this ambient noise.”

That day they were researching the challenges kids face in making healthy choices for an app they were designing that semester, aimed at reducing obesity rates. While they continued to take their core academic classes with their peers at Algiers Technology, Rooted kids were pulled out everyday to work with their Rooted teachers and volunteers from local tech companies on projects and to learn coding and programming. The year was capped by a summer internship that would build on the computing skills they learned during the year.

At the end of the year, Johnson declared the pilot a success: 13 of his 14 students passed the state exams needed to graduate and were accepted for a summer internship at a local tech company, with each guaranteed pay of $16 an hour.

Three of the Rooted students worked at Entrescan, a 3D printing firm in an industrial suburb just outside of New Orleans. Lyle Leblanc, one of the company’s vice presidents, said he was trying straddle the same line as Bowen and Johnson, balancing giving students responsibilities, just like his own employees, but also rules and boundaries, because they’re still teenagers.

“It’s about meeting them where they are, not assuming subject-matter knowledge but also realizing that their lives are way different than mine,” said Leblanc, who was eager for an opportunity to teach kids tech skills as a way to give back to the community. “Starting out I would imagine what would my 17 or 18 year old self do, but I had all the confidence of being a middle class white guy.”

Related: A student’s death leads a teacher to open a new kind of high school

Leblanc, who taught English in China, was happy with the progress that they were making. He and his three young interns seemed at ease with each other and with the hulking 3D printers.

“This isn’t an established industry, there’s new technology all the time,” added Leblanc. “I’m trying to get these interns marketable, not just for me but any one of the print labs around town. So I want to make sure they understand how it works from soup to nuts. We want to walk away with projects they can show off. But it’s on them.”

“I realized early on that it was beginning to feel like school,” he added. “So I’ve been stressing, I’m not your teacher, I’m your boss.”

Johnson is spending this year nailing down the specifics of how to import the tech boot camp model into a school that still has to administer standardized tests at the end of the year, figuring out specifics like how they’re going to track students’ mastery of both traditional academic competencies and their new tech skills. He’s had more success on the fundraising front since he started out; in June, he received $150,000 from NewSchools Venture Fund, a nonprofit, which will help cover all the computing staff and programs he’ll need to bring his vision to life.

“After four years of working at a zero tolerance college prep school, I must admit that it’s sometimes difficult for me. It looks messy but I feel like the work is getting done,” Johnson said. “We are the product of a culture that wants to see it done right first. We are not an iterative culture, but kids’ futures depend on us becoming one.”

“Many educators are frightened at the prospect of giving them control,” he added. “But that’s what the high wage jobs of the future will demand.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about New Orleans.

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Emmanuel Felton

Emmanuel Felton is a staff writer. Prior to joining The Hechinger Report, he covered education, juvenile justice and child services for the New York World.… See Archive