The Rethinkers, a  band of child activists, started their quest to reinvent New Orleans public schools to their own way of thinking in 2006 with two simple desires: clean, serviceable bathrooms and decent cafeteria food. That they had to ask for such basic amenities speaks volumes about the state of schools before Hurricane Katrina came along and pretty much wiped them out.

Backed by a savvy media consultant, this group of 8 to 18-year-old students dramatized their cause by calling for student action outside a storm-ravaged school.

The dramatic visual of broken glass and toxic mud combined with heart-melting smiles drew the desired media coverage, and a star was born.

“I didn’t think anybody would listen to them,” says Jane Wholey, mentor and group founder. “The fact that they did was really the beginning of Rethink.”

Now, five years later, the Rethinkers are using media muscle to gain a real voice in school-based decision making. They have gone from ridding local school cafeterias of the hated spork – a mutated half-spoon, half-fork – to securing promises from school officials and food providers to serve more local food in schools. They continue to lobby for fresher food, increased physical exercise opportunities and more counseling for rule breakers.

The key to their success is holding yearly press conferences where they make recommendations and issue reports based on student surveys and researching key issues with the help of college interns. Often the greatest insights come from the mouths of babes such as Ron Triggs, 9, a “Prethinker” who attends Edgar P. Harney Elementary.

Triggs tells the story of a friend who was suspended for running in the halls. From his point of view, the boy’s misbehavior was connected to a rainy day and the need for exercise. “I think the teacher should have given him some time to move around,” Triggs says. “It was kind of hurtful. He was mad because like he was one of those people that really loves school.”

Such stories led the Rethinkers to agree with many national groups that schools are pushing children into delinquency by removing them from school for behavior that could be managed in more positive ways. In one report, the Rethinkers quoted the American Bar Association as stating that schools’ “zero tolerance” policies have led to redefining “students as criminals, with unfortunate consequences.”

The group’s recommended solution is to reduce middle school suspensions by half and to set up “restorative justice circles” in schools. Restorative justice circles are gatherings where aggrieved parties talk out conflicts and come to agreements for reparation of harm. Rethinkers believe that such school-based strategies to resolve conflict will teach children better ways to solve problems than violence.

What Rethinkers have to say has impressed adults so much that they have been the subject of local TV and print articles and featured on the “Rachael Ray Show” and Nickelodeon TV. An HBO special about positive change-makers includes the group in a segment to be aired in 2012. Wholey says the Rethinkers’ profile was filmed over several weeks during the 2010-’11 school year.

The group’s inclusion in the HBO series reflects its unexpected success in making changes in New Orleans schools. New school designs include Rethinker ideas such as hand-washing sinks in all new school cafeterias and garden plots that students can tend themselves to grow produce for their schools. The greatest success of all was this year’s agreement by cafeteria supplier Aramark and Recovery School District Superintendent John White to provide locally grown food in cafeteria offerings twice a week.

Securing fresh food at lunch has been a Rethinker focus from the beginning, and it has become one of their two major push points. They have pressed their requests for better food with two professionally designed reports that score selected cafeterias with grades from F to A. As a result, Joseph A. Craig Elementary, one of the organization’s club locations, went from an F to a B in one year and Langston Hughes Academy, another group supporter, went from a B-minus to an A-plus.

Wholey credits universal fear of report cards for food improvements. The Rethinkers’ scores “really hit a nerve,” she says.

Encouraging schools to increase the amount of time students spend moving around during the day is a new objective. The group has started a campaign to encourage school officials to enforce a policy that schools provide at least 30 minutes of exercise a day. In a recent letter to school officials, the group wrote that such a measure would help students control their weight and it would also “help our stress.”

As part of its own fight against obesity, the Rethinkers have partnered with the School Health Connection, a coalition formed to rebuild and expand school health centers in the New Orleans area. They want to bring “Instant Recess” DVDs to New Orleans classrooms. Developed by a University of California public health professor, the DVDs are 10-minute exercise videos that can be used in classrooms. Rethinkers made their own “Instant Recess,” using dance steps they learned in school music programs. The videos will be available free to schools, Wholey says.

Another recent Rethink enterprise is a graphic novel called Feet to the Fire, which is aimed at teaching other children around the nation how to transform their role in schools from passive conformists to active players. In cartoon style, it guides potential student activists in following its organizational process: “Dream,” “Document” and “Take Action.”

The book provides advice about how to approach principals in a respectful manner, how to survey students to get a wider viewpoint, and how to use theater skits to get points across to decision makers. The book stresses a key Rethink premise – one that has worked well for the group so far. “People will respect you more if you come to them with ideas instead of complaints.”

Rethink’s 2011 Recommendations for “Healthy Schools”
• Provide healthy choices at school events such as sports games and school dances. Many students don’t want nachos and hot dogs.
• Teachers: Do not reward students with candy. Reward with fresh fruits.
• Teach cooking and gardening.
• Follow state policy and provide ways for students to get 30 minutes of exercise per day.
• Start school stress teams. Find out what makes students stressed and provide support.
• Cut suspensions in middle schools by half and use restorative justice circles to work out conflicts between students and teachers.