New Orleans Rethinkers prove that children truly are our future
6th August 2012 · 0 Comments
By Kelly Parker
Over the years we’ve come to expect to be not only entertained but inspired by the local pioneers for progress known as the Rethinkers. On July 27, the group didn’t disappoint, as the 7th annual (Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools) summer news conference took place at Samuel J. Green Charter School.
The press conference was the group’s first event since the news of the Emmy nomination for the HBO documentary, “The Weight of the Nation,” which featured the Rethinkers in the installment-” The Great Cafeteria Takeover.”“The Great Cafeteria Takeover” has placed an exciting spotlight on the power of youth voice to promote change in schools,” Rethink executive director Thena Robinson-Mock says. “We receive requests on a weekly basis to expand our program to other parts of the country and throughout Louisiana. The most inspiring letters and emails come from young people who are transformed by witnessing the Rethinkers make This year’s event, themed, “Thinking Outside the Bubble” (re-imagining student wellness from standardized tests to school lunch), the group recapped their achievements in school food reform and alternatives to routine conflict resolution, but also stressed the importance of mental, social and physical wellness in area schools.
“This year our 2012 recommendations push the envelope by challenging schools to think about how the very structure of the school day promotes health and wellness,” Robinson-Mock told The Louisiana Weekly. “This summer, we explored the impact of high stakes testing on the school day and the availability of comprehensive sex education in schools. With so much emphasis on “closing the achievement gap,” the Rethinkers have issued a challenge—schools should work on “closing the wellness gap.”
“We want to be healthy and be able to learn and function in our schools,” Rethinker Kennadi Robinson said. “Wellness helps us have a better healthier mind, body and heart. When kids go to school, we want to listen in class, but how are we supposed to do that if we have nasty lunches, an inequitable discipline system and stressful testing environments? People, we don’t want to burn out before we’re 25!”
“In 2011 we began to deepen our work on school food and cafeterias and began to expand our work to include physical fitness programs,” Robinson-Mock added. “The students learned, for instance, that Louisiana law mandated physical exercise in public schools for students in grades K-8. They were shocked to learn that schools were not obeying these laws.”
It’s safe to say the Rethinkers will be holding school administrators’ “feet to the fire” on the issue.
The Rethinkers are also advocating the implementation of comprehensive sexual education classes in elementary and secondary schools, an idea likely to create a challenge for the group because schools are not required by Louisiana law to provide such classes for elementary and secondary schools.
Nonetheless, the students shared statistics showing how high the state still ranks high in pregnancy among teens, along with AIDS cases. Rethinkers stressed the importance of a comprehensive sex education, which would include both abstinence and age appropriate information.
The group of youngsters also expressed their concern for developing better relationships between students and teachers.
“A way to build ‘community’ is to create community agreements,” Rethinker Sean Garner told the audience. “These are agreements the entire community-teachers and students, make together, creating a sense of ownership, instead of rules that students have no part in making. These agreements work because everyone has a voice in creating them.”
As he’s done in the past, animated Rethinker Ron Triggs announced the year’s Annual School Food Report Card.
Receiving B+ grades were Johnson Elementary and John Dibert Community School. Langston Hughes Academy received a grade of B. The highest honor went to Samuel J. Green Charter, which received an A+. This year, the group surveyed and graded schools on both food and fitness programs.
In keeping with the tradition of partnering with area school districts to improve wellness in New Orleans schools, Jay Altman, CEO of FirstLine Schools and RSD Deputy Superintendent Dana Petersen were also on hand for the news conference.
“It’s an honor to be here, especially with so many rising leaders,” Altman told the group and those in attendance. “I also appreciate the time and effort that you put in helping figure out how to make schools better. I look forward to working with you vigorously on this in the future.”
Altman believes many of the Rethinkers’ recommendations are realistic and should be implemented with no problem. He did state he looked forward to ‘vigorous discussion’ on others.
He challenged the students to translate their ideas into reality in a way that works in our schools, stating that many of the recommendations discussed may be implemented quite easily, while others may bring on a bit more complexity.
“We’re very honored (at FirstLine) that Rethink has chosen to work in so many of our schools and think it will make our schools much better,” Altman told the students.
The CEO’s comments received mixed reaction from some in the audience, but Thena Robinson- Mock states the group sees all views constructively and takes on the challenges of seeing their ideas and goals to fruition.
“We understand that our recommendations push the envelope and so we’re not too surprised by the push back that we receive at our news events,” she says. “Our work involves a great deal of visioning and we understand that we’re suggesting ideas and concepts that may not be the norm in our schools today. The real work happens after our news events as we build a movement of engaged young people dedicated to seeing change in their schools. We look forward to the opportunity to sit down with school leaders in the weeks and months ahead.”
As the city faced bleak times in 2006, this group of young students provided a glimmer of hope for change. Some of the original group members are now entering college and have passed the torch onto a new team of Rethinkers. There are approximately 100 Rethinkers citywide and the group has served over 300 students since the organization’s inception. Rethink founder Jane Wholey, now retired, has passed the torch on as well.
Since 2006, Rethinkers have convinced school officials to repair 350 substandard bathrooms, replace “sporks” with forks, knives and spoons in school cafeterias, install hand washing sinks in all new school cafeterias, and added garden plots to architectural designs for all new schools. In May of last year, the group convinced ARAMARK and the RSD to sign an agreement to serve fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables at least twice a week.
“Many people said that kids wouldn’t eat fresh fruits and vegetables, but we decided to prove them wrong.” Rethinker Ashley Triggs said.
“You can’t help but look at these youngsters and think of yourselves at that age,” RSD Deputy Superintendent Dana Petersen said. “I ask myself would I have had the confidence to express these recommendations on how to improve my school. This is something to really be proud of.”
Peterson committed to working with Rethinkers, and stated the RSD will continue the dialog needed to move forward and to execute the recommendations brought forth at Friday’s press conference.
“Thank you (Rethinkers) for your leadership,” Peterson told the youth. “Continue to grow. You guys are going to be great leaders and I think New Orleans has a bright future ahead of it.”
Thena Robinson-Mock agrees.
“We now have evidence that young people who participate in our program, develop critical leadership and civic engagement skills that are transforming their lives and those around them,” she told The Louisiana Weekly. “Rethink is creating the space for a new type of leader. I fully expect to see our young Rethinkers leading New Orleans in law, policy, and wherever their bright paths take them. We’re witnessing transformative youth leadership in action.”
For more details on the recent recommendations and more on the third annual school food report, go to www.therethinkers.com.
This article was originally published in the August 6, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper