May Youth Profile
Since 2006, I’ve had the privilege of working with a nonprofit organization called Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools (Rethink), which was formed after Hurricane Katrina to give youth a voice in the reshaping of public education in New Orleans. Rethink started with a core group of about 20 middle school kids, who witnessed the total devastation of their city. At the time, I was 10 years old, and about to enter the 5th grade.
That first summer, we began to vision. Rethink created a space that New Orleans kids had never imagined before: an opportunity to envision the perfect school. From basic needs like toilet paper in the bathrooms, to the more “out there” ideas, like the occasional roller coaster in the cafeteria, we came to some strong conclusions. At the end of the summer, we held a press conference that happily attracted major media coverage, and the attention of several education policy makers.
When I first joined Rethink, I figured it would be a one-time gig, an isolated summer experience. I never imagined I’d end up representing Rethink at national conferences at the age of 16. After that first summer, Rethink went on to have an annual summer program, with each focusing on a different issue. We sent out over 500 surveys to youth from schools all over New Orleans, collecting as much information as possible about the different aspects of school life. After we compiled that data, we worked with topics in the order that our youth rated them, starting with the most pressing: bathrooms. We then tackled cafeterias, gardens, security, and traditional punishment in schools. We ended each summer program with a press conference to present our ideas to the community.
Through working on these subjects, we’ve seen great success. Our designs for a 21st century green bathroom and cafeteria were accepted as part of the city’s Facilities Master Plan. We convinced school officials to add garden plots and hand-washing sinks to all new schools and replace sporks with real forks, knives, and spoons. In 2011, we signed an agreement with ARAMARK (the food service provider for the Recovery School District) to serve locally grown produce twice a week in all 37 RSD schools. This year, HBO is featuring Rethink in a documentary about childhood obesity, The Weight of the Nation, which will be airing May 16th.
Recently, Rethink has been working to spread the word about alternatives to traditional punishment in schools. This is my connection to America’s Promise Alliance. I was awarded a My Idea Grant called Restorative Justice: Sharing the Knowledge, enabling Rethinkers go to Colorado to learn more about restorative practices in schools. Nearly 16,000 Louisiana middle and high school students drop out annually, in part, because of high suspension and expulsion rates. In New Orleans the expulsion rate in the RSD is ten times the national rate. Suspensions make students feel unwelcome, separate from the community, and cause them to miss valuable class time. Denied the opportunity to learn from their mistakes or repair the harm caused, students often repeat these offenses and ultimately drop out of school. Restorative justice mends relationships and keeps kids in school, increasing graduation rates, and puts students on a diploma track rather than a pipeline to prison. Rethink is deeply grateful to America’s Promise for providing us funding to be able to see restorative justice in action and bring it back to New Orleans.
Rethink has been working to create the types of schools that offer the Five Promises to young people. We’ve come a long way in six years, and we still have a ways to go to create excellent schools for all children in New Orleans. With the help of strong partners like America’s Promise Alliance, youth are being given the voice and opportunity to make real, lasting change in our own educational environments. We are confident that the schools the next generation of children will attend will inspire young people to stay in school, graduate, and become great contributors to their own communities.