New Orleans Student Reimagines High Schools
As advocates for youth, adults may think that their best ideas will lead the way for education reform. But a non-profit organization in New Orleans is proving that youth can be, hands-down, their own best advocates. In fact, when given the tools to organize, their results have already transformed the way public schools are doing business.
When other kids are playing sports or hanging out with their friends, Vernard Carter is rewriting the script about what young people can do to improve their schools. Vernard is one of the longest-standing and most accomplished student leaders of Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools, or Rethink for short.
Rethink was started in 2006 by Jane Wholey, a media consultant in the late stages of her career, after exiled city residents began to return to their city and re-enroll their children in the public school. The climate was ripe for the Rethink movement because the city and the state each wanted their hand at reforming the system. According to Jane, “the schools had been destroyed and there was a lot of conversation and excitement in the air, but there was no voice of young people in the debate. It struck me as a real problem.” Rethink believes that students deserve a voice in school reform, so they come together every summer, on Saturdays throughout the year, and in several schools as part of a club. (Rethink currently has clubs in one high school and five middle schools, totaling about 100 student participants.)
Uncovering a passion for organizing
Vernard, who is 18 and a senior, has been a “Rethinker” since the sixth grade when he tagged along with his older brother Victor to an annual six-week summer Rethink workshop. From that moment on, he was hooked. He currently serves as a mentor to Rethink clubs in several local schools. Just about every Saturday, he’s working on Rethink projects. He has also begun partnerships with four other organizations that have related youth-driven missions.
Vernard feels a deep commitment to his hometown, a city that was devastated by Katrina when he was a child: “New Orleans is my home. I see it as a huge part of my life because it’s a part of who I am.”
He puts his time where his mouth is: “I want the city to be a better place so people can come back. I want to help develop the schools in a way that they act as a magnet to help attract people back. Why would you send your kids to a city with the schools system failing or where there are not enough schools for your kids to go to?”
“Who knows more than a student? You are already an expert, experiencing it.”
While Vernard feels comfortable as a student in his school, he recognizes that many of his peers do not feel the same way. “Schools have security guards, metal detectors, strict uniform policies…Just the idea of some of the policies made me believe that they’re leading [students] to failure,” he says.
One of Vernard’s proudest accomplishments with Rethink was implementing a restorative justice approach to discipline in New Orleans schools, allowing all parties to come together to work their issues out. In this approach, the rule-breaking youth contracts to correct his or her mistakes. Vernard said, “It allows students to stay in school and also learn from the incident and repair the harm that was caused.” This approach has been a quiet movement receiving high success rates in many parts of the country (see SparkAction coverage here).
Says Vernard: “Once I found that we used the criminal justice system as a template – we want to keep students out of prison but we treat them as prisoners – I wanted to know, how can that work?” According to him, the New Orleans expulsion rate is 10 times the national rate and two times the state rate, while its suspension rate is 3-4 times the nation’s and twice the state’s. Furthermore, Vernard was convinced that some students were getting the brunt of these policies more than others. “Most of the students who are targeted for suspension and expulsion are the black students, the students from low-income families, who can’t afford the private schools to get a good education.”
Beginning with the annual Citywide workshop two years ago, young Rethinkers elected to find ways to bring restorative justice into their own schools. According to Vernard, the former superintendant was not receptive to their idea. Trying another strategy, Rethinkers introduced the idea to charter schools, and students there brought it to their administrators’ attention. “It was something these students wanted. Then, when we got a new superintendant, we presented the idea to him. He wanted to do more alternatives to suspension and expulsion.”
The students’ diligent work has delivered powerful results. Citing one example, Vernard noted that the new superintendant this summer decided to start charging schools that expel their students. “It would end up costing the school more to expel a student [than to use restorative justice].” He noted that one high school saw a 60% drop in violent actions” after adopting the model.
A youth-driven approach to change
For Vernard, the restorative justice model of sitting together in circles and attempting to understand each other is similar to how Rethink clubs and summits operate. “It feels like a community. Like an actual family. We are close. How can you give up on your family and stay away from people who care about you?”
Vernard sees Rethink’s greatest strength in the way that adults operate with student leaders. “I view the adults’ job to help us get our voices heard. Instead of let us blab on about one topic, they’ll help us figure out what specifically we want to change, and why we want to change it. They are basically our research team to help us collect our facts.” Jane, Rethink’s founder, agrees: “I see what we do at Rethink as a collaboration between adult mentors and youth. It’s really a multigenerational process in support of youth voice.”
Of course, this process is not always easy. I asked Jane how she has allowed students to remain the central leaders of change over the past five years. Pausing, she said, “We exercise a lot of self-discipline.” By that she infers, “Once you understand that children have a right to create the education they find themselves in, then you figure out how to practice what you preach. Our staff is constantly working on that.” She cites policies such as never allowing an adult to lead a news conference, and always passing on speaking engagements to young people.
Students in Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools have led a number of other transformative projects, including the renovation of 350 substandard school restrooms, the addition of garden plots to all newly built schools, and significantly more fresh and local foods served in the cafeteria. Rethinkers have also published a book called Feet to the Fire: The Rethinkers' Guide to Changing Your School.
So what does all this work really amount to? Vernard says he hopes it will help schools reinvent themselves to become more responsive to students, a place of experiment and adventure.
You know how little kids always see school as a “magical place?, he asks. “I would like Rethink to help make that a reality, that schools accommodate their students."
From wallflower to college bound
If Rethink's goal is to transform schools and school climate, its impact is also a personal one. Vernard says his involvement helped him “become more of an outgoing person. I used to be shy and not talk to people, and was very hesitant to raise my hand. Now I’m very confident to raise my hand and say what I have to say.”
On a personal level, he wants to help other Rethinkers “get to where I was – become more outgoing people and develop skills that will help them in the future. I feel a deep connection to the students.”
Crediting the skills he gained through Rethink, he plans to go to college to study architecture and expressive arts.
And he plans to stay involved with movements led by young people because after all, he points out, “Who knows more than a student? You are already an expert, experiencing it.”
Advice for Other Student Leaders
Vernard’s eight tips for other students contemplating change around the country:
1. Ask students what changes they want to make in their school community.
2. Find a group of people.
3. Locate resources to develop change-making skills.
4. Predict how the change will affect the community.
5. Research the ideas you have and how they have affected people in other areas
6. Reach people. Be able to convey your message.
7. Partner with people who want to continue making change.8. When you want change, you can’t just present the problem; you have to present a solution as well.
Eddy Ameen writes and curates the Youth Rising blog for SparkAction.
Photo credits: Colin M. Lenton. Photo of Vernard Carter corrected 10/24/11.
Are you a young person leading social change? Do you know of one? We want to hear from you for possible inclusion in a future Youth Rising Blog. Email Caitlin@sparkaction.org and share your reactions in the comment section below.