INTERVIEW by GARY GOLDMAN | PHOTOGRAPHY by COLIN M. LENTON
Ensuring that the next generation of adolescents become involved citizens and are provided with great opportunities is a battle worth fighting, and one that Jane Wholey has championed in post-Katrina New Orleans. After the vast majority of schools were destroyed or badly damaged, the professional media consultant realized that no one could figure out how to restore a failed system better than the marginalized youth directly affected by it. Her organization, Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools, (even though she would probably cringe at the thought of me calling it “her” organization), works with middle-school students to take action on any pressing issues in their respective schools. In six years, several hundred youth have taken on projects like grading their school cafeterias and staging news conferences to tell the media about their ideas. Many of their recommendations for academic change are now official school policy. The Rethinkers have written a book, Feet To the Fire, The Rethinkers Guide to Changing Your School, and have become a nationally-recognized group of young leaders.
Were you yourself educated in New Orleans?
I’m not originally from New Orleans, but I’ve lived here for many years. My two sons got a good education in the public school system, notably because my husband and I did research, advocated for them, and found the right schools for their needs. In those days (the 1990s and early 2000s), New Orleans was a place where a small amount of white, educated people could manage to find a wonderful education for their kids, but where most children were subjected to heartbreakingly bad education.
As a professional media consultant, what I find remarkable is that you were able to create change just by exposing the horrendous realities of the local schools.
My passion was – and continues to be – bringing the voices of disenfranchised communities into the public debate. I realized that children are about as powerful media messengers as you can get.
After Katrina, when I was trying to figure out how to help my drowned city, I noticed that public education had emerged as a top issue. There were news stories almost every day; everywhere you went you found a conversation about future schools and what they should look like. No student voices were part of these conversations. So I decided to gather a group of kids and convince them to join the debate. Some of my talented friends agreed to help recruit students for a summer program. At the end of that summer – 2006 – the youth called a news conference they called, “What We Endured, What We Envision.” It was so compelling that it catapulted them into the national news.
Looking back, why do you think that creating Rethink was so important for the kids?
In a place like New Orleans, many low income students do not have good after-school options. If you grew up in the suburbs of New York City, you’d probably have lots of exciting choices for activities after school and in the summer. Here, in many cases, it’s the TV set or Rethink. So if you’re a kid who longs to change the world, Rethink is not only a fun thing to do, it’s like a bottomless cup of cool water. In a given year, we work with as many as a hundred kids between our six Rethink School-based Clubs, and our Citywide Program that includes a summer school and year-round committees.
You’re now in your sixth year with Rethink — what have been some of the most obvious changes in the educational sphere?
There have been quite a few changes. We have rebuilt many of our destroyed and damaged schools using high standards. The new schools are “green” and beautiful. Test scores have risen. Most of our schools are now charter schools. In fact, we have more charter schools than any city in the country. The charter school movement is very controversial.
It’s quite terrifying to think that these changes happened because of Katrina. A failing system actually got better after it was literally destroyed…
Well, it’s true. The Katrina tragedy brought a new humility and openness to the school arena. The attitude became, “you got a good idea? Put it on the table.”
On the other end, what are some of your reservations about the current system?
I have a lot of respect for what the post-Katrina reform movement has accomplished, but we have a long way to go. I think we have to move beyond test scores as the main indicator of success. The test score priority, in my opinion, has brought with it a school culture of harsh punishments. Students get detentions and suspensions for what in my day was considered normal behavior. The police are called in to handle problems that principals used to solve. The number of students who are expelled, drop out, and enter the juvenile justice system is breathtaking. I would like to see a city where public schools prioritize critical thinking skills and developing caring relationships among students and between students and teachers. I think these are the skills that youth – and our country – need for the 21st century.
Have you found that an increased amount of civic engagement leads to a better academic performance?
To be honest, we don’t really track academic performance, but we have a lot of anecdotal evidence that suggests that kids who stay with Rethink for more than a year do better in school. It’s kind of a no-brainer: you have a family of friends who care about you, you have made changes in your school and the school system, you see yourself on the evening news. These experiences make kids respect themselves and know they can make a difference in the world. Academic achievement often follows.
What does the future hold for Rethink?
We have proven that the Rethinkers can change systemic school policies here. So what do we do next? Create Rethinks all over the world? We entertained that idea for a while, but what we’d like to do, actually, is to start a Rethink Institute and invite people who want to know our story learn how we did what we did. Then they can apply our successes to their own towns and cities. We are developing curriculum for that now. We also envision consulting teams of staff and Rethinkers that could travel.
How can readers contribute to your success?
We would love your readers to contribute to our success! Make a contribution to Rethink, buy the Rethink book, or volunteer hours, days, weeks, in our garden. You can also volunteer to come as an expert speaker or presenter, volunteer as a college intern, bring Rethinkers to talk at your conferences, and bring Rethink staff and youth as consultants to your community organization.