• The Soul of School Design: Part 1

    How tragedy and triumph guided two school leaders to their purpose.

    11/27/2014 The Soul of Schools

    Founder and CEO of Rooted School, Jonathan Johnson, waits outside of his former high school, back towards New Orleans’ world-renowned Superdome and skyline. Photo by L. Kasimu Harris.

    Crossing Paths

    Jonathan Johnson hated his first year of teaching middle school in New Orleans. His career options were plentiful after graduating from college in California, before he signed up to work in a struggling school district, at an average-performing school, whose at-risk kids often cussed him out.

    Wondering why he had ever joined this profession, Johnson decided that after his two-year commitment was done, he’d move back to California or somewhere–anywhere but that classroom.

    Until one day, he found his ‘why’ and a renewed conviction so deep that he decided to build a school.

    Vera Triplett, 42, a veteran educator and a New Orleans native, found her ‘why’ long ago. But, opportunities kept getting in her way. She taught for five years, raised a family, earned a Ph.D., and ascended to the executive level in several organizations and never lost sight of running her own school, a goal since 2008.

    Johnson and Triplett were members of 4.0 Schools’ Launch Cohort 9, where they began to work with students and parents to learn about their educational needs. For most of the summer, they gathered in a conference room and exchanged ideas, notes and dreams of founding schools in New Orleans. Triplett’s path to becoming a school founder was shaped by the erosion of an educational system in the city, a slow process that began long before water gushed through the levees following Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, after which many of the schools were gutted replacing bricks and mortar along with teachers and administrators. In 2005, Johnson was 16 and a high school senior in Riverside, California. For this duo, experience has taught them that the future of schools is best accomplished within organizations they’ve established. And for Johnson, building Rooted School came at a price.

    Playing the Part

    As a sophomore in high school, 2003, Johnson shifted from FUBU clothing and baggy jeans to buttoned-up shirts, dress shoes and a blazer. He had to give the appearance that he was more mature than he was, he had just become a licensed minister.

    Johnson attended Chapman University, an hour drive southeast of Los Angeles, in Orange, California. The annual enrollment is about 7,000 for the private institution that is consistently ranked among the top universities in the West. He was a member of Delta Tau Delta Fraternity, “the white version of the Alphas,” Johnson said referring to Alpha Phi Alpha, a predominantly African-American fraternity that is often associated with scholarship.

    Johnson didn’t know anything about college life. He learned Delta Tau Delta felt differently about hazing and excessive partying, and that its members were campus leaders. He wanted to attach himself to people who could help him build a professional network that his parents weren’t able to. Johnson was also in the Black Student Union among other organizations.

    After graduation in 2010, he considered attending Harvard Divinity School to become a professor, but that summer, a TFA recruiter from Los Angeles contacted him. Johnson was uninterested. But, after seeing the benefit to the community and the opportunity to build a foundation for himself, he was invested.

    jonathan in class at kipp

    Johnson teaching his students at KIPP Central City. Photo by The New Teacher Project.

    He was hired at KIPP Central City, a college-prep charter school, in its first year of 8th grade. On a staff with some of the top teachers in America, Johnson recalled feeling overmatched while teaching a subject that barely mattered: history scores count least on the Louisiana Educational Assessment Program (LEAP), a high stakes standardized test. There is also no MAP Test for social studies — a national standardized assessment used to track growth across academic subjects. “It was my introduction to war,” Johnson says. He constantly made that metaphor, calling that year his most personally and intellectually challenging experience ever.

    “I struggled to relate to the students, even though I looked like them,” Johnson said. In closed settings, he blamed them and dismissed their behavior as just not wanting to learn. The students didn’t see any evidence that he came from a similar background, regarding him as just another one of the white folk that they read about. He was Childish Gambino to their Lil’ Wayne.

    “I had a deep resentment toward the students and they could sense it,” he revealed. His classroom took advantage of the situation and let their frustration out in hopes that he was replaced by someone who could teach. Once, in his class, two co-eds were flirting by teasing each other. He recalled the sinking feeling as the young woman stood and shouted something so profane, so sexual and so funny that the class cackled uncontrollably.

    “At that point, I knew that I didn’t know what the hell I was doing,” he said while laughing at himself.

    Initially, Johnson approached his students like his teachers did him: listen because I’m the teacher. And says he didn’t understand the influence of dynamic investment in students, where students entrust the teacher when they understand their shared common ground. “The common ground was not my authority over them, my race or that I possessed content knowledge they needed,” he explained. Moreover, he learned, that teachers have to be inextricably connected with the social culture that students are brought up in. He wasn’t privy because he wasn’t a native. He had to understand the reality of the students’ lives.

    In his second year, he started finding his ‘why,’ and it was war. He became more empathetic, built a rapport with students and shared why he wanted to be their teacher: he established a common ground.

    “I was very much like the students and came from the concrete in the Tupac metaphor and was able to rise,” he says. Johnson shared how he hadn’t done it alone and how they could rise too. He looked within and discovered the students were in a literal fight for their lives; metaphorically, it was a war against the system. He proved to his students that it was by design: an inequitable structure with black-on-black crime, poverty, disproportionate incarceration rates, and the like.

    “And unfortunately we’ve taken it out on ourselves, on each other and that’s what the system wants us to do,” he said. “What the system doesn’t want them to do is rise, like I did.” He said it may have been brainwashing or proselytizing, but after about a year, he started to realize that they were responding.

    When his content became more relevant, Johnson’s history class gained purpose both with him and his students. It shifted from mere compliance with what the state of Louisiana required him to teach, to considering what the classroom sought to learn. He realized students wanted purpose in their education and that trying to enforce the law requiring their attendance was not it. “My class became more than a social studies class, or a KIPP class,” he said. “It became a class that helped them gain back the control of their lives and minds.”

    Two years after he had arrived in New Orleans, the same students he had once despised gave him a reason to return.

    Literacy as a Weapon

    In year three, he defined literacy as a weapon and told the students that reading and writing on a high level would be how the war could be won. And that defeating the odds by academic achievements was the purpose of his class. The results were clear on the LEAP: over 80 percent of his students were performing at basic, where students demonstrate only fundamental knowledge and skills in the subject, and above, compared to 62 percent in the Recovery School District and 48 percent in Central City. “I don’t credit those gains to me being a better teacher,” he said. “I credit those gains to the students being more invested in the why of war.”

    Johnson emerged as a cornerstone among the teaching staff in his fourth year. It seemed like he was winning, too and Johnson started gaining national recognition. He was nominated for the Fishman Prize for Superlative Classroom Practices. That year, more than 820 teachers applied or were nominated for the award that includes a $25,000 stipend and summer-long residency. About 100 were invited to submit teaching videos, 21 were selected as semifinalists and participated in unannounced teacher observations, 10 were named finalists, and 4 were awarded the prize. He was named a 2014 Finalist and excited to get validation throughout the process, because within the KIPP Network, he recalled feeling overlooked.

    In July, the in-person portion of 4.0’s Launch began, it was a month of 12 to 15 hour days that were concurrent with Johnson’s preparations for his fifth school year. His scholastic obligations continued to mount. Johnson’s vision of a school was a burgeoning realization, but time didn’t comply with both of his pursuits. He had to make a choice between remaining a classroom teacher or founding a school. “Coming from where I come from, you don’t turn down consistent money,” Johnson says, as he reflected on not having assurance of funds for daily life or building a school. He made the difficult decision to leave KIPP and focus on Rooted full-time. “It was like I just leapt off a cliff and I had a parachute on my back,” he says, “but I had no guarantee that it would work.”

    Launch was over, but he still put in long hours at 4.0, as he prepared for Pitch Night in New York. The event featured a panel of judges who would award $10,000 and where the audience’s votes divvied up another $10,000 among the nine teams. The flight to New York was the first time Johnson had the mental space to practice his pitch.

    “It was something about being in New Orleans that didn’t allow me to focus on Rooted,” he said. Now, he views that flight as the vehicle to transition and mentally move on from the hurt of leaving the classroom and into founding a school. He practiced, and then listened to Mac Miller, Frank Ocean and PartyNextDoor, and then practiced again. Drake’s “Too Much” was one of his songs of the summer. The song is about mistakes and moving on.

    He landed in New York a rejuvenated man beaming with the pride and joy of becoming a school founder. Johnson walked into The Greenhouse on the 12th floor of the Scholastic Building in Lower Manhattan dressed in black suit, a black tee shirt with white vertical stripes, brown shoes and colorful socks, and a pocket square.


    Launch Cohort 9 group photo. Back row, from left to right: Jonathan Johnson, Luk Hendrik, Jessica Ashworth, Joe Belsterling, Molly Levitt, Michael Giovacchini, Justin Bayer and John Fraboni. Front row: Alexandra Diracles, Vera Triplett, Melissa Halfon and Monique Wilson. Photo by L. Kasimu Harris.

    “I’m here to get this money,” he said jokingly, but in all seriousness, before posing for group photos, he did a team warm-up and then found a quiet corner on the terrace to for his final practice. The sun shone across the New York skyline.

    A month earlier, the teams from cohort pitched to members of the education community in New Orleans. There was no money to win, only mints for finishing on time. Johnson lead off the pitches, and although he gave his last sermon as sophomore in college, he made the house jump like a church revival.

    “They say that parents aren’t supposed to outlive their children. Teachers aren’t supposed to outlive their students either, he told the Pitch Night audience. Johnson retold the story from 2012, when he learned one of his 8th grade students, Ricky Summers, had been murdered the night before. Summers was a bright student and on track to attend college. His death was a catalyst for Johnson to found Rooted Schools.
    “In this moment, I could not help but think of Ricky,” Johnson said to the audience. “And how the pull of the streets was stronger than the pull of school.”

    Johnson took feedback from over 100 attendees that evening, giving him constructive feedback to further prepare. He tried to work through conflicting pieces of advice: more story or more model. He experimented with what he thought would make the pitch better.

    During the second pitch, he meandered and exceeded four minutes. If he took the people to the mountain top in New Orleans, in New York it was merely a peakless journey — Johnson’s pitch was almost all model. However, some of the feedback from New York was that his school design was more clear than before.

    Johnson’s second pitch in New York City at the Launch Cohort 10 Pitch Night, to an audience of 200, and panel of judges. Videography by Liz Cole.

    “Perhaps that came at the expense of passion,” he says adding that in New Orleans, he could be emotional and give fewer details. He wants people to invest in his passion, a quality that Johnson says will get him through the building process. He didn’t win the cash prize to help in the funding of his school, and would be returning to New Orleans without his teacher’s salary.

    The teams celebrated in New York after the pitch night.

    “While we were drinking fine wine and beer, he says, “I was scared.”

    A Native Solution

    Vera Triplett grew up between two neighborhoods.

    With her grandmother, she lived uptown in the 3rd Ward on Valence and Saratoga Streets, and with her mother, a single parent with three kids, she lived downtown. “Name a street in the 7th ward and I probably lived on it,” Triplett said about her mother’s many addresses. Triplett’s father helped, but it wasn’t easy to make ends meet.

    She attended Valena C. Jones Elementary School, and each morning and evening walked seven blocks up and down Miro Street with her siblings and the other neighborhood kids. On the jaunt, if someone had money, they’d buy something from Miller’s or Richard’s corner stores to share. They passed Epiphany School and maneuvered around the cars of parents dropping off children.

    “It was very clear that if you were black and went to a Catholic school, your family had some disposable income,” she remembers.

    Her family’s entertainment budget was meager, so they played games in the street: “High fly in,” and “Mama your bread burning.” Each year, she paid a dollar for cultural resources, where her class discovered the city by going to museums, the ballet and walking through the French Quarter. Triplett was president of the 7th grade class and always knew she wanted to get a masters degree. In her family, education was always paramount.

    Throughout her schooling, a few things were rare: teachers leaving their positions and students being murdered. Around first or second grade, she recalled a boy who was killed because a mentally ill boy beat him to death. Triplett was friends with the slain boy’s sister. Later, in high school, a boy committed suicide, but such events were far from normal.

    Around the late 1980s and early 1990s, however, with the rise of crack-cocaine and brutal crimes, things began to change in the city. The schools she attended remained unscathed. She graduated from Eleanor McMain Magnet, a high school located near Tulane University in uptown New Orleans, in 1990. At the time she attended, it was the number two top academic performing school in the state. It was also a selective entry school with a diverse student population that was immersed in the arts. She remembered attending a McMain football game against Ben Franklin High School, their scholarly cross-town rivals, whose students decorated banner that read: “We’re smarter than you. We’re number 1 and you’re number 2.”

    Triplett also spent part of her day at the New Orleans Creative Center for the Arts (NOCCA), a performing arts school that groomed the likes of the Marsalis family, Harry Connick, Jr. and Anthony Mackie, where she studied classical vocal music and took piano lessons. Triplett is child of the 1980s and also learned the works of more contemporary composers like the Sugar Hill Gang, Kool Moe Dee and is a self-described “hip-hop head.”

    For college, she went away to Northwestern State in Natchitoches, Louisiana, until her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1992. She transferred back home to Southern University of New Orleans (SUNO), where she graduated in 1996. She married John Triplett the next year and their family eventually grew to three children. She said she gained a daughter from her husband’s previous relationship, they adopted a son and had another daughter together. “We had a cornucopia of ways to make a family,” she said with a mother’s pride.

    Triplett began teaching in 1997 at various schools that were known for academic woes and behavioral problems. At those schools, Edward Livingston Middle School, McDonogh 28 Middle School and John McDonogh High School, many students murdered and parents were left behind with the pain, a pain the Triplett family would experience years later, too. Triplett says she quickly realized that her inability to identify and address emotional and behavioral issues decreased her teaching effectiveness. Triplett started taking classes to improve her teaching, but planned on pursuing a Ph.D., in English. She said God had another plan and those classes led to a Masters Degree in School and Community Counseling from the University of New Orleans. Triplett’s last year in the classroom, 2001, was at McMain, her alma mater. Even then, it was still among the best schools in New Orleans until Hurricane Katrina.

    After Katrina, schools transformed overnight. Charter schools sprouted up and were an alternative to those run by the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB). Today, the city is on the brink becoming the nation’s first all-charter school system. Before Katrina, OPSB directly ran 125 schools–now it’s six.


    Vera became a big sister and mentor to Jonathan during the 4.0 Schools Launch cohort. Photo by L. Kasimu Harris.

    “I believe some assume that people from New Orleans messed this up, so they can’t be expected to fix it,” she said, adding that not everyone feels this way, nor is she saying that people who currently have lead positions are not qualified. The city’s public schools serve majority African-American students, with their reformers and leaders primarily white men.

    Triplett sits in a lot of board rooms with white men, many who are leading the education reform that have less education and experience than she does.

    “I have to have the education to be in those rooms,” she said. She earned her Ph.D., in Counselor Education from the University of New Orleans in 2004.

    She contends that doors are harder to open in the current education environment as a minority and especially if you’re from New Orleans. Moreover, Triplett says, to some extent, as woman, it’s another barrier and they have prove themselves, to a greater degree, demonstrating that they have the capacity to do this work. Triplett added that people tend to pull from their networks that are often comprised of other white males. Conversely, she recalled how the same thing happened when the school system was under African-American leadership. New Orleans is expected to grow from 60% to 65% black by 2015.

    She returned to secondary education in 2008 as Chief Operations Officer for the Capital One New Beginnings Charter Schools Network. Her professional career flourished–personally, she was heartbroken. Triplett’s 20-year-old son was murdered in 2010. He was an innocent victim. She has rarely talked about his death publically for a number of reasons: it’s an open case, she tends to focus on his life and she doesn’t want to be exploitive of his death. “It’s not in the natural order of things, children are supposed to bury their parents,” she says. Just before he was killed, he acquainted himself with his biological mother. Triplett said that in her opinion, any person who felt they had so little to lose that taking someone’s life is even an option, is an issue that relates back to education.

    “It made me want to work harder,” she said and repeated it again later. “It made me reflect more on a work life balance. I wanted to make sure that I was giving my family the time they deserve.”

    About nine months after her son’s death, the family learned he had an infant son. Triplett’s grandson celebrated his fourth birthday earlier this year.

    She continued to persevere and was named CEO of Capital One New Beginnings Charter Schools Network in 2011. The next year she became the Executive Director of Transition for the Recovery School District (RSD) and was promoted to Deputy Superintendent for Achievement in 2013. Earlier this year, RSD downsized from 568 employees to 92. Triplett left the organization with the desire to continue improving local education.

    While schools in New Orleans were undergoing reform, the special education students were being left behind–a well documented ill even before Katrina. Triplett asserts that not every school has to be designed to work with special needs students, but some schools should. She said a number of schools, despite their best efforts, don’t have the capacity to address the needs of students with documented emotional or behavioral disabilities.

    So she sought a change.

    Her school, Noble Minds Institute for Whole Child Learning, takes the approach of whole child learning with academic and therapeutic services for children with special needs and for their families seeking a more nurturing environment for their students.

    Flying Together

    Johnson and Triplett were on the same flight to New York. They didn’t sit together but shared a cab from the airport. In the air, she went over her pitch mentally a few times, to make sure the timing was right, before taking a brief nap. “We had just finished Launch, I was doing pop-up schools and writing a charter,” she says. “Having permission to disconnect was good.”

    But once off the plane, she knew it was time to go to work. She felt some anxiety because there was no time to change and get to the hotel, but that feeling quickly shifted. On the cab ride in with Johnson, she received an email that she had moved to the second of three phases of the Future of Schools Challenge, a partnership between New Schools New Orleans and 4.0 Schools with support from the Khan Academy that sought bold school designers, nationwide, to produce radically student-centered schools. Triplett said she felt a sense of relief that she could continue because of that financial investment.

    “It was just a thankfulness that people got it and respected what I’m trying to do,” she says. “When people invest in other people, it’s because they are aligned with the mission that they are trying actualize.”


    Triplett making the case for a school model in New Orleans focusing on restorative justice while at the 2014 Launch Cohort 10 Pitch Night at Scholastic. Photo by Harlin Miller.

    Johnson, an ever jovial person, initially had different emotions during that taxi ride. They were the only members of Cohort 9 also in the Future of Schools Challenge and Johnson said during the process, Triplett became a mentor and a big sister. She said she took a “shine” to him right way and they learned from each other. So, it was clear to Triplett that Johnson was stressed “picking between children that I love so much and founding a school that I will have a broader opportunity to do,” he recalled. They exited the cab and proceeded to pitch.

    Dr. Vera Triplett pitches Noble Minds at the Launch Cohort 10 Pitch Night in New York City. Videography by Liz Cole.

    Ultimately, Triplett didn’t win the competition either. The evening, however, was valuable and allowed her to share her vision with a room full of educational supporters. Before returning to New Orleans to resume the work of building their schools, Johnson and Triplett celebrated with the 4.0 family. But, it was Triplett’s words in the cab ride that comforted Johnson. “I remember her telling me that everything would be alright,” he said. “And that the school I was founding would be worth the struggle.”

    Editor’s Note: This story documents the journey of Jonathan Johnson and Vera Triplett, winners of the 2014 Future of School Challenge, hosted by 4.0 Schools and New Schools for New Orleans, with Support from the Khan Academy. In part one of the series, L. Kasimu Harris follows the two school founders during the oft under reported early stages of their school design – from idea to prototype.

    L. Kasimu Harris

    L. Kasimu Harris is a New Orleans correspondent for 4.0 Schools. He is a NOLA native, Ole Miss alum, and also covers style at ParishChic. Read more of his work here.