Students Helping Students to Fix New Orleans Schools

Sometimes it takes a kid to get something done right. Amid hundreds of tales of greed, waste, deception, mismanagement and sheer incompetence during the aftermath of the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina, not many would expect to hear of a success story that was created and implemented by school kids. But that's exactly what happened in Amherst, Mass., on Sept. 17.

It began with Joshua Wolfsun, a 12-year-old from Amherst who has displayed a vastness of heart and conscience with which to match his natural reserves of musical talent, comedic nature and willingness to commit to a lot of organizing and production.

When he first learned of the Katrina disaster and began seeing images of the devastation in the city of New Orleans, Joshua took to the streets, busking (street performing) with his guitar and voice to raise money for the relief and recovery efforts in the Gulf. Before long, he had called his friend Tess Domb Sadof, a 12-year-old saxophonist who helped jazz up his street act and attract more attention, and subsequently more donations rolled in toward the cause. The duo eventually raised over $800, which they donated to the Red Cross, a decision they later re-thought after reports of the agency's mishandling of the situation surfaced.

Oddly enough, with some serendipity the pair discovered that re-thinking was precisely what was needed. After a winter of watching the crawling pace of relief efforts and wishing they could come up with a way to help out more, or at least more effectively, Joshua and Tess found exactly what they were looking for: another group of school kids some 1,500 miles away, in the heart of the situation they were trying to help resolve, who called themselves The Rethinkers.

One of the better ideas to come out of the Katrina tragedy, the program Rethink, or ''Kids Rethinking New Orleans Schools,'' was, of course, conceived and organized by kids (are you paying attention, FEMA?). Originally composed of 19 students, Rethink is committed to producing ''report cards,'' not for students or even teachers but for the schools themselves, which many have noted were sub-par even before the hurricane. Now, post-Katrina, New Orleans public schools have been described as ''filthy'' and ''ill-equipped'' to educate or even ensure the basic health and safety of the students who attend them.

Rethink held their own press conference this past summer outside the hurricane-damaged Sherwood Forest Elementary School in New Orleans East, and several Rethinkers gave testimonials describing what they think is wrong with their schools and what should be done to fix them.

rethinkers group photo
Clockwise from top left: Rethinkers Dudley C. Grady Jr., Shannon Taylor, Isaiah Simms, and Josephine Bingler.

"We should not have to spend our day in an unsanitary school," says Josephine Bingler, 13, one of the four kids who flew up from the Big Easy, "or have to use the bathroom with no tissue, no soap, and no doors on the stall. We've got signs in our bathrooms that read 'Don't Forget to Wash.' How can we wash when there is no soap and the water from the fountain is brown? We need to have a voice. We need to get the message out to adults. They should know about these horrible schools and the terrible environments we have been forced to learn inside."

Briante Brumfield recalls a brief taste of a school in Texas that she attended after having been evacuated there, which she says made her realize that she was "cheated out of [an] education back home." The Texas school, she recounted, "had updated books for every student, lockers, elevators and teachers who seemed to care and want to teach. Those schools had after-school programs and other electives that kids were interested in such as French and Spanish. I think we should have all this in our schools because we are kids and all we want is education."

Some students who spoke at the press conference were offered mature assessments not only of the limits of public systems but also of realistic improvements that can and should be made to get the schools out of the pitiful states in which many now remain. Rethinker Aaron Danielson lamented:
People often think that kids want impossible things, like recess all day, or candy for lunch, but we only want things that are essential, like good teachers, better books and enough supplies. I was fortunate enough to attend a good public school, but thousands of kids have to bear through bad lunches, terrible bathrooms with no soap or toilet paper and also bad, poor, or no education. We are not asking for the greatest schools in the country, just ones where we can learn.
The Rethink agenda is reflective of a national trend of youth organization that includes groups like Chicago's Generation Y, New York City's Urban Youth Collaborative and others, which have become formidable agents of real change. Many of these groups were formed to protest or try to influence prevalent national, state and local school policies that concern hiring and firing of teachers and counselors, often draconian security practices (especially in large cities) and zero-tolerance adherence to underfunded standardized testing requirements. In many cities where control of public schools has been handed over to mayoral or even state control, these are very difficult battles to fight; even so, these kids have been winning some of them and don't look ready to quit any time soon.

Building Harmonies, Tess and Joshua's fund-raising event in Amherst, was a smashing success, raising in excess of $7,000 for the Rethink movement through sponsors, ticket sales and refreshment tables. Singers, dancers, pianists, violinists and ukelele players poured out their talents for the cause.

Building Harmonies performers
Pictured here: Most of the performers at the Building Harmonies fund-raiser in Amherst, Mass.

The level of real involvement was deep and genuine on the part of every one of the Amherst Middle School performers and the showcased talent was surprising for a roster so young. Performers Bess Hepner and Maisy Sylvan even wrote an original song inspired by a photograph of a New Orleans classroom entitled "What the Waterline Missed," which was both quite perceptive and downright sad.

Visiting Rethinkers Isaiah Saivon Simms, 11, the aforementioned Ms. Bingler, Dudley C. Grady Jr., 15, and Shannon Taylor, 16, showed their self-produced video about their mission to improve New Orleans schools, and each spoke briefly about what they hoped to achieve in the future with this goal in mind. They also ran a clip from NickNews, A Nickelodeon national news show for kids that featured Isaiah, and afterward whipped up the audience with a "Second Line," donning feathered masks and dancing around the auditorium tossing Mardi Gras-style beads as they went and proving that even a downer as devastating as Katrina can't snuff out the spirit of a place with as much heart and soul as New Orleans.

"Our role in this whole thing has been to help the kids envision where they want go," says Linda Stout of Spirit In Action, a Massachusetts-based group who provided much of the impetus for Rethink. "We told them to imagine they had gone through a time machine to the year 2026, when they'd all be adults looking back at how they got here. Of course, it's important to take the steps to get where you want to go, but before you do that you have to know where you want to go, what you want to see when you get there." If these kids are any indication of what the future might bring, it seems there's yet another reason for us to hang on to our desperately needed optimism.

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