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Meet the Rethinkers

Matthew Hose on the students whose input is making changes in New Orleans schools

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Rethinkers discuss ways to improve schools in the Recovery School District. - PHOTO COURTESY THENA ROBINSON-MOCK
  • Photo Courtesy Thena Robinson-Mock
  • Rethinkers discuss ways to improve schools in the Recovery School District.

A group of elementary school students is making administrators rethink their policies in the New Orleans Recovery School District (RSD). "The Rethinkers," a group of almost 50 youths from across New Orleans, propose changes to RSD schools, and for the past seven years the goup has seen some success getting those changes implemented.

  Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools (Rethink) began in 2006. The nonprofit group hosts a six-week summer program for middle schoolers and has clubs in six schools in the RSD.

  One of the group's first summer projects raised several eyebrows, says Rethink Executive Director Thena Robinson-Mock. In 2007, the Rethinkers decided to fight against "sporks," a combination spoon-fork plastic utensil commonly used in cafeterias. To adults sporks seemed a miniscule part of school cafeterias' larger problems, but the students were adamant.

  "It's not about [adults] making services better for kids, it's about involving [kids] in the decision-making process," Robinson-Mock says. "And if there's one area that kids know about, it is the school environment."

  To the children, the plastic sporks, which they said aren't effective as either a fork or a spoon, represented the administrations' lack of respect for their students. The students felt the sporks were a slap to their dignity and made them feel inferior to kids at schools that had real utensils.

  The Rethinkers campaigned to remove sporks from the lunchroom at schools throughout the RSD. Several schools did replace the hybrid utensil with plastic forks and knives. Seeing that their outreach was actually having an effect, the Rethinkers then decided to take on a bigger and more complicated task: reforming the food and atmosphere of the lunchroom.

  The group began by surveying and interview-ing students, teachers and administrators at RSD schools, asking what the problems were at their schools and how they would like to fix the system. After compiling all the information (with the help of Tulane University's Research Department), the Rethinkers found overwhelming dissat-isfaction with many RSD school cafeterias — and the sentiment was expressed by students, teachers and administrators alike.

  When interviewed for The Weight of the Nation for Kids, an HBO documentary series about obesity, Barbara MacPhee, principal of N.O. Charter Science and Mathematics High School, was asked if she enjoyed the cafeteria food at her school. "I do not," she said. "In fact, I very rarely eat there."

  The Great Cafeteria Takeover, one of the three parts in the series, focused on the Rethinkers. "I used to enjoy broccoli, until school lunches started giving canned foods and it tasted horrible," former Rethinker Domonique Triggs said in the segment. "It ruins your experience with a vegetable. Why would you even want to eat it when you've had horrible, horrible broccoli?"

  The Rethinkers discussed which reforms would be most important, then issued "Twelve Recommendations for School Food and Cafeterias." Among the group's suggestions: that schools buy fresh food from local markets instead of using canned and processed foods, that cafeterias present alternatives for vegetarians, that schools plant outdoor vegetable gardens, install hand-washing sinks and cease the punitive policy of "silent lunches."

  "We as Rethinkers know that adults will listen to us if we have great ideas and solutions, instead of just complaining," Rethinker Victoria Carter said.

  They submitted the recommendations to then-RSD Superintendent Paul Vallas, who agreed to implement 11 of the 12 (he refused their recommendation to replace plastic utensils with metal ones, saying that was a safety issue).

  The Rethinkers then faced a dilemma: How could they ensure the reforms were implemented? "[The Rethinkers] said early on, 'If schools grade us, we should be able to grade them,'" Robinson-Mock says. Soon they issued "report cards" measuring each school's progress in implementing the 12 recommendations.

  In 2010, two years after the nonprofit group presented the recommendations, the Rethinkers surveyed students, teachers and administrators at six schools to see if those institutions had acted on the suggestions. Rethink then issued each school a letter grade ranging from A+ to F.

  Some of the statistics were alarming, Robinson-Mock says. At Joseph A. Craig Elementary, for example, 66 percent of students responded that they didn't eat school-provided lunches. Of those, 55 percent reported "not eating anything" at all during lunch.

  "Many kids are not eating school lunch," Rethinker Devin Cooper says in one of the report cards. "They don't think it is good. They are hungry and that's why they cannot focus on learning."

  The Joseph A. Craig Rethinkers suggested short-term solutions including making water available for students at lunch (many schools only provided milk), serving more salads and fruits, and providing condiments for students to season their food.

  "Our message is not to shame the schools, but to offer concrete solutions," Robinson-Mock says.

  In 2011, the second year of Rethink report cards, all but one of the schools had raised their scores. The biggest jump came from Joseph A. Craig Elementary, which went from an F to a B. That school began serving freshly cooked food and locally harvested produce and seafood, removed sporks and allotted time for students to wash their hands before lunch.

  This solution-based system has gained momentum in the seven years Rethink New Orleans has been an organization. The segment of of the Emmy-nominated HBO documentary series that featured the group aired in May. But the Rethinkers think their biggest success was signing an agreement with Aramark, the national corporation that provides cafeteria food to 28 RSD schools, in which the company agreed to serve locally grown produce at least two times a week in all RSD schools.

  "How many youth groups do you know of that have negotiated a deal with a multinational group and won?" one Rethinker asked a cheering crowd at a news conference to announce the agreement. "RSD and Aramark, one thing you should know: We will hold your feet to the fire to make sure you do everything you promised."

  This year Rethink New Orleans included more criteria in its grading system, and subsequently some grades are lower (Joseph A. Craig's grade for this year is back to an F). The group now also judges schools based on whether the institutions provide a federally-required 30 minutes of fitness classes per day, if it provides healthy food choices at school-sponsored events and more.

  Rethink also began grading the food-providing companies (including Aramark) and is trying to ban so-called "silent lunches," usually used as a punishment by teachers, which Robinson-Mock says detracts from the "communal nature of food." The group also is focusing on "Restorative Justice," a disciplinary system in which students talk out their conflicts with other students or teachers in order to mend relationships instead of being pushed into "the school-to-prison pipeline."

  It began with a group of children who wanted to address problems plaguing students in New Orleans' public school system and has become a vehicle for change — from the mouths of babes.

For more information about the Rethinkers and how to get involved, visit www.therethinkers.com.


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