The press conference was only a few days away, and activists calling themselves the Rethinkers were brainstorming in their annual summer program about the best way to get on the front page of the newspaper. They sat in a circle. Some fidgeted. Jane Wholey, a former journalist, discussed “visuals.” It is all about the art, she told her audience.

“What’s more important for us?” she asked. “A story this big or this big?” Her gestures described a long piece and a short piece. Everyone agreed: The bigger, the better.

The message these once-powerless followers wanted the media to deliver was this: We want better schools. We want respect. And even more to the point, we don’t want to start the day passing through metal detectors. We don’t want to be frisked for knives, guns or any other rule-breaking devices.  
The Rethinkers are mostly New Orleans middle school children who have succeeded in getting their voices heard since 2006. They were organized by Wholey to take an active role in the reshaping of New Orleans schools.  After the state took over most of the city’s “failing” schools, Wholey noticed that the only “experts” missing in the debate about how to make them better were students. Looking for a way to get involved in hurricane-recovery efforts, she decided to use her experience teaching nonprofit organizations how to deal with the media to help students influence the reform process.

She had expected the project to last a few months, but the students who took part were so energized by the experience they convinced her to drop her media consulting business and continue as their adult springboard. By then, they had already internalized one of her favorite phrases – “rethinking schools” – and started calling themselves the Rethinkers. Since then, donations and grants have allowed Wholey to hire staff members. Rethinkers have held four press conferences and spearheaded the Recovery School District’s renovation of 300 public school bathrooms and influenced the Public School Facilities Master Plan for the City of New Orleans.

In 2008 they followed their attack on dirty, nonfunctioning bathrooms with new recommendations. They wanted nutritious food served in the cafeteria, not mystery blobs. Vernard Carter, a third-year Rethinker and a sophomore at New Orleans Charter Science and Math High School, says one of the school cafeterias where he ate served “unidentifiable” food.  “It would be gray,” he says, “but it would be greens or something.”

They also wanted separate forks and spoons, not a “spork,” a half-fork, half-spoon mutation resembling a plastic webbed foot. They won that battle, too.
Feeling empowered, 27 students spent their summer preparing to attack what they describe as demeaning security searches. Once they came up with desired changes, they developed solutions. That done, they then devoted the final days of the program to creating media “visuals” that they hoped would propel their message to every household through news programs.

The group decided that school counselors could greet children in the morning, identify troubled students and direct them to student-led “resolution centers.” These centers would help students in conflict to work out their problems in positive ways. Carter, a spokesperson for the group, pointed out that this approach was used in Newtown, Pa., and it led to significant changes in behavior.  Officials in Newtown said in a 2008 Administr@tor article that detentions and suspensions dropped 82 and 59 percent, respectively, in a three-year period.

“A school should not feel like a prison,” Carter said at the July press conference. “As I walk through the doors of my school, I want to be treated with dignity.”

The Rethinkers also presented a theater piece to show adults how to provide a more welcoming school atmosphere. In their dream schools, metal detectors morph into sunny entrances monitored by smiling counselors who say, “Have a great day.”

In another scene, a student licks her lunch plate. “The food is so good all the teachers want to eat it. The principal, too – for once,” a narrator says. 

In all, the Rethinkers recommended 11 changes: four targeting security programs and social workers; four regarding the quality of the dining experience; and three about teachers. The Rethinkers want teachers to be prohibited from using cell phones in class. They also want to grade teachers every quarter just as their teachers grade them.

Media presence was thin for this presentation, but the person who matters the most, RSD Superintendent Paul Vallas, sat among a half-dozen Rethinkers taking notes. 

As he has in the past, Vallas supported most of the group’s recommendations. He outlined plans to develop a student organization to work on beautification projects and safety issues. He also promised to address the inappropriate use of cell phones by teachers. Budget limitations restrict the number of social workers he can hire, he said, but every teacher is required to provide one-on-one counseling. In addition, he suggested Rethinkers conduct “climate” surveys to update officials about students’ attitudes about their learning environments.

He refused to eliminate metal detectors, however. With school violence on the rise, it would be unwise to stop using them, he said. He provided an example of an eight-year-old boy caught carrying a gun to school recently. “We live in a different society, where everyone seems to be packing,” he said. “I am always going to want metal detectors in schools.”

In the end, the Rethinkers won some points and lost some. Their bright blue T-shirts didn’t make the front page of the Times-Picayune, but members did get prominent inside coverage. Moreover, the Rethinkers’ influence is spreading. 

Members such as Vernard Carter and his sister Victoria, a ninth-grader at New Orleans Charter Science and Math High School, have traveled to distant cities to speak. At Vallas’ suggestion, the group also plans to form school clubs citywide and to hold a summit each spring for members to network.

But Wholey says that the most important element in the Rethink program has nothing to do with press conferences or attending club meetings. “It’s really a transpersonal experience,” she says. “Once they realize that they can be heard, they are activists for life.”