Last week, the young people of Kids ReThink New Orleans Schools released their recommendations for New Orleans' public schools. The ReThinkers are a group of more than 120 students that meet via school clubs and a citywide group that meets during the summer and on weekends - mostly Middle School students, with some older students, and some younger "PRe-Thinkers." The project began in June of 2006 from the principle that students deserve a voice in the changes happening in New Orleans' schools, and that youth participation in these decisions is also both a learning experience and empowering.
ReThink has held five major news conferences, and they take credit for several reforms, mostly related to school food policies. These changes include convincing school officials to repair 350 substandard bathrooms; eliminate "sporks" in favor of spoons, knives and forks; install hand washing sinks in all new school cafeterias; add garden plots to all future school designs; and serve significantly more fresh food.
School officials have been less receptive to some of their other suggestions, such as last year's proposals for alternatives to metal detectors.
At this year's press conference, which was held at Langston Hughes Academy, students made twelve policy recommendations that fell under three categories: peace in our schools; fresh, tasty, local food prepared in fully equipped kitchens; and oil-free schools.
The initiatives the students recommended for peace in the schools centered around a restorative justice program that has been used successfully in other states, most notably Colorado. The basic idea of restorative justice - where the solution is seen in repairing the harm done, rather than finding punishment or revenge - would be a radical and vital improvement to the system currently in place. Langston Hughes and Walter L Cohen have initiated restorative justice programs, making them first elementary school and high school in the state with these projects in place. ReThinkers also displayed a photo collage representing their vision for an outdoor reconciliation circle at Langston Hughes.
The students unveiled report cards they had prepared, rating the school lunches at six schools, with grades ranging from an "F" for Craig Elementary to a "B-" (the highest score given) for Arthur Ashe and Langston Hughes. The reports gave concrete advice for improvements, many of them centered around providing fresh, healthy, locally-grown food.
Recovery School District Schools Superintendent Paul Vallas was invited to respond to the recommendations, but arrived moments before he was invited to speak, and apparently had not heard the students' proposals. While he gave general praise to the the ReThink project, and offered to help their project expand to more schools, it remains to be seen what concrete steps he will take. Sarah Newell Usdin, the Americorps veteran who is CEO of New Schools For New Orleans, was in attendance for the presentation and also spoke in response. Usdin added to Vallas' promises of support, praising the student's specific proposals around Restorative Justice and oil-free schools.