New Orleans, LA – Community IMPACT Series: Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools, Dec. 22, 2009

With so many components of New Orleans public schools in flux these days, a group of students is bringing one more issue to the table: their own voices. These young people are part of the nonprofit group Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools, and they're adding the perspectives, concerns and innovative ideas of actual students to the ongoing effort to recast a long-troubled school system. Their message is different, and so are these messengers.

"It makes people really pay attention when it's a student telling you this is the problem rather than an adult that you see on TV everyday saying the same things."

That's Vernard Carter, a sophomore at New Orleans Science & Math High School. He's been a Rethinker since seventh grade, and he's seen firsthand how the group's efforts are beginning to make a difference in some fundamental aspects of student's daily school experience.

That's because beyond voicing students' complaints about their schools, the Rethinkers propose solutions. They started by surveying their peers and asking what they thought were the most glaring problems in their schools. The students named low-quality, heavily-processed school lunches, and malfunctioning, poorly maintained school lavatories. So these two topics became areas of focus. Here's Rethink program director Dee Dee Green:

"All of this comes from the students, directly from them. We don't eat in the cafeteria, we don't use the bathrooms. So, young people were saying this is a problem, this is a barrier to learning for me, if I can't use the restroom or if I can't eat a decent meal."

Students then studied best practice in design and operation for these school facilities. They heard from adult experts, including architects and local vegetable farmers. And they put together their own proposals, which were presented to the media at Rethink-led press conferences. Their proposals were detailed and well-sourced, and they made a big impression with some Recovery School District officials. Again, here's Dee Dee Green:

"As a result of the work the students have done on these two designs, they've been incorporated in the city's facilities master plan, the big ten-year plan to rebuild schools."

Next up, the Rethinkers are working on school discipline issues. This year, they're looking at the possibility of peer mediation and intervention teams as an alternative to suspension when students get into trouble.

Rethink is a grassroots program that began less than a year after Hurricane Katrina, starting as a six-week summer program with 20 students. Since then, more than 200 young people have participated, and in addition to the ongoing summer program there are now Rethink clubs in seven middle schools meeting throughout the academic year. The goal is to create 20 of these clubs within the next two years, to eventually make the Rethink experience available to students in any public middle school in New Orleans.

In addition to spurring school improvements today, Rethink also serves a leadership development role as students discover their own voices and their power to create change. Here's tenth grader Vernard Carter again, explaining what the program has meant to him:

"I get to express how I feel about my school and I get to do something about that. It makes me feel proud that I'm actually doing something to make a difference in my community."

Learn more about Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools at For WWNO, I'm Ian McNulty.