NOLA Public Schools' West Bank headquarters. (Marta Jewson/The Lens)

Rooted School, a charter high school located at Touro Synagogue on St. Charles Avenue, found itself in hot water with the NOLA Public Schools district earlier this month over a grading scale it has used for the last four years and that its founder and CEO says the district was well aware of.

But earlier this month, a top district official issued a warning letter to the school, saying the way it grades is a violation of NOLA Public Schools policy. 

Since opening in 2017, Rooted founder and CEO Jonathan Johnson said the school has used an “ABCF” grading scale — notably absent is the just-passing D. At Rooted, anything that would have fallen into the district’s D on the grading scale is an F. 

“Essentially our philosophy was — and still is — that D does not constitute passing,” Johnson said in an interview on Friday, explaining that grades are a strong indicator of how students perform in college. 

Johnson said the district has known about the grading scale for several years.

Johnson provided multiple emails between district officials and Rooted employees discussing it. Though the emails show that district officials questioned the school’s grading scale, they do not show previous directives to change it. Johnson said the recent warning letter — a so-called “level II non-compliance” warning, the most serious type — came as a surprise.

District spokeswoman Taslin Alfonzo said the district has been working with Rooted to get its grading scale into compliance since 2018. The NOLA Public Schools accountability team noted the issue last year during a high school transcript audit — a process started after the graduation scandal at John F. Kennedy High School in 2019. This fall, officials said findings could come with consequences.

“On February 27, 2020, the NOLA PS Team conducted a routine audit of transcripts which revealed that Rooted School was non-compliant regarding the use of the LEA grading scale,” Alfonzo wrote Monday.

On Tuesday, Alfonzo confirmed that the district had been aware of the grading scale since 2018 and “has worked with Rooted to bring their grading scale into compliance” since then. The district did not begin thorough reviews of charter high school student transcripts until the 2019-2020 school year. 

Kevin George, the district’s Chief School Accountability Officer, wrote in the Feb. 4 letter to Johnson that the school received the warning for “violating the LEA Agreement by failing to follow the grading scale outlined in the [Local Education Agency] Pupil Progression Plan.”

Most New Orleans charter schools are their own LEAs, which essentially means they are legally considered their own school districts — giving them greater autonomy in setting their own policies — though they are still subject to some regulatory oversight from NOLA Public Schools. But a handful of small schools, like Rooted, function under the district’s LEA. That allows them to tap into shared resources for special education, budgeting and other services.

Since Rooted is part of the district’s local education agency, or LEA, it must follow the same grading scale approved by the district, the district argues. State law requires school boards to “develop, adopt, and provide for the implementation of a uniform grading scale for use” in public schools and enforce it. 

Johnson doesn’t disagree with the logic, but he questioned why things escalated seemingly quickly — from conversations and observations about the school’s unique grading system to a written warning. 

“In 2018 we asked if we could keep it with no D because we believe including D’s sets a low expectation with our students, especially those going into the workforce,” Johnson said, noting workforce certification exams require a higher passing score than what a D would equate to.

“We are still under their LEA. In 2018 and obviously with COVID, they gave an opportunity for us to potentially explore something different to better meet the needs of our students,” Johnson said. “The conclusion, obviously with the level 2 non compliance, is that we no longer have that opportunity and they want us to stick with the grading scale as stipulated under the LEA.”

Johnson said the district had noted the different grading scale on multiple occasions but did not instruct the school to change it. 

“Lots of back and forth with us trying to get an answer from them so that we could resolve it,” Johnson said. “Their team did not communicate back and resolve it with us.”

Alfonzo said the grading scale was not in compliance with district policy. 

“During audits in February 2020 and September of 2020, the accountability team found that Rooted utilized a grading scale that was not in compliance with the Orleans Parish School Board’s Pupil Progression Plan,” Alfonzo wrote. “Schools shall comply with OPSB’s Pupil Progression Plan, developed consistent with Bulletins 1566, 741 and 1706, unless expressly amended by the contract agreement.”

“Credit/No Credit applies to Pass/Fail opportunities that are allowable, according to Bulletin 741. Grading scales are not utilized in pass/fail course options for students,” she wrote.

In September, Rooted’s school leader explained the school’s rationale behind its grading system to the district.

Johnson said the school hasn’t received a warning before. “I didn’t know you could get one out of the clear blue so this was a surprise.”

Johnson confirmed Tuesday morning that the school had made the grading scale changes requested by the district. The change affects 19 students who were not passing all of their classes under the prior grading scale, he said. One of those students is a senior. 

“With this shift they are all now passing their classes,” he said. “So they will not have to retake those classes or take summer school.”

Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned...