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In the decade since Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans, the city has transformed in many ways. Maybe the most profound change has been in the schools, first taken over by the state and then turned into the most extensive charter school system in America. This morning, NPR's Michel Martin brings us a conversation with a New Orleans educator and educational entrepreneur.
MICHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Jonathan Johnson, thanks so much for joining us. You taught such social studies to eighth-graders at one of the charter schools in New Orleans. And after just a few years, you were a finalist for a very selective and prestigious teaching award, the Fishman Prize. Can you tell us just a little bit about your approach?
JONATHAN JOHNSON: So I came to New Orleans in 2010 to do Teach for America and got placed at KIPP Central City Academy in New Orleans. To put it mildly, it didn't go so well in the first two years. In the third year, I came back to build a classroom that I would put my own children in. And this is also the year where I became known as the warrior teacher because...
MARTIN: Warrior teacher.
JOHNSON: Warrior teacher because my classroom was all about fighting the war on low expectations for African-American youth in our country. The goal in the class was to prove the dominant narrative told about my students wrong. The students came to learn that the odds of their future success were stacked against them and how critical it was for them, for their communities and for their families to overcome those odds.
MARTIN: So you've been very candid about the fact - now, you just mentioned that the first year didn't go so well. The first and second years didn't go so well. I think you've actually described it more strongly than that - I think it was a disaster, actually (laughter).
JOHNSON: Yeah, yeah.
MARTIN: So what is it that went wrong, and how did you turn it around?
JOHNSON: Every class period, I could point to multiple moments within a given hour where I was confrontational with students or students were confrontational with me. You know, I remember moments when I would leave school - one particular moment when I was in my car, getting ready to leave at like 7 p.m., and shots went off. And the person that got shot walked up to my car and asked if I could rush him to the hospital. And I did and had a pool of blood, you know, on the seat of my passenger side of my car to show for it.
The defining moment for me was in my second year when one of my students, Ricky Summers, was murdered. Ricky, to give you context, came to the school in the fifth grade performing as a first-grader in reading and math. But by the time he was preparing to leave the eighth grade, at his funeral, they read the results of his EXPLORE test, which is a test we use to predict whether or not a student will qualify or what they will score the ACT. And they found out that he qualified or would have qualified for tops, which in Louisiana would've given him free tuition to any public state university.
And so it was the most personally challenging moment of my life - more personally challenging than paying my way through college. And it was challenging because there was no rulebook for how to lead a classroom of 100 students after the death of one of their classmates, let alone when that classmate is murdered by a former classmate.
MARTIN: Well, what effect do you think that had on you? Or how did that change what happened in the classroom?
JOHNSON: For me, I couldn't do what was asked of me. I was no longer invested in a classroom vision that revolved around heavy test prep or preparing kids for a pathway to higher education with no certainty around the outcomes of that education - that what these kids needed more were leaders that looked like them to show them the way out and how the way out is not always going to be pretty. But if we do what Tupac's "The Rose That Grew From Concrete" suggests - continue to stretch toward the sun, that we'll get there. And I say Tupac's poem because that's what we recited every day in my classroom for three years.
MARTIN: Give me a couple of lines, if you would.
JOHNSON: Did you hear about the rose that grew from a crack in the concrete, proving nature's law is wrong? It learned to walk without having feet. Funny, it seemed. But by keeping its dreams, it learned to breathe fresh air. Long live the rose that grew from concrete, when no one else ever cared.
MARTIN: What made you start the day with that?
JOHNSON: Because in a few short, powerful sentences, it captured my why, which was the ultimate message I wanted to translate to kids in every lesson, in every artifact I had in the classroom. And that is that by being low-income and in our case black in America, what we are aiming to do every day is achieve what others do not think is possible and what many of our families do not think is possible for us because they don't know any better or haven't seen anyone do it themselves.
MARTIN: You've taken a year off from teaching because you now want to create your own model, your own educational experience. You're still in the piloting stage. It's called Rooted School. What's behind that idea, and what do you hope to accomplish?
JOHNSON: Rooted School aims to help students discover their why. And the way that we do that is through aligning our kids' passions and interests with 21st-century, high-growth, high-wage jobs that will fast-track them to lives of financial independence and stability. We project over the next 10 years that more than 7,000 digital jobs will become available in New Orleans, not to mention the thousands of other jobs in other high-growth, high-wage fields. Yet no school locally - and I would argue nationally - is placing within its mission the goal to connect kids to these opportunities that are right in front of them.
MARTIN: Finally, before we let you go, I just wanted to ask, is there something you feel that New Orleans and New Orleans' experience with the charter school movement can teach other places around the country?
JOHNSON: I think New Orleans can teach us about the promise and potential of our education system and that that promise and potential is rooted in the choice that we give kids and their families around excellent schools and also the opportunities for folks like me to reimagine what is possible for public education for our kids.
MARTIN: I've been speaking with Jonathan Johnson. He is an award-winning teacher in New Orleans, a finalist for the 2014 Fishman Prize. And he is the founder of Rooted School in New Orleans. Jonathan Johnson, thanks so much for speaking with us today.
JOHNSON: Thank you so much for this opportunity, Michel.
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