Dignity in schools: an unexcused absence

by Orissa Arend

NOLA-Rethinkers-daily-circle-0709-by-Colin-Lenton1, Dignity in schools: an unexcused absence, Culture Currents New Orleans – “A school should not feel like a prison. A school should feel positive, safe and welcoming. A school should feel like a second home. As I walk through the doors of my school, I want to be treated with dignity.” These are the words of Vernard Carter, a rising 10th grade Rethinker at a well-attended press conference held July 23, 2009.

The Rethinkers – or Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools – know how to zero in on the basics. First (in 2007 and 2008) they tackled bathrooms and lunches, with marked success, and now they are addressing safety and dignity. What could be more basic?

Rethink began in June 2006 as families staggered back from a year in exile to re-enroll their children in a city school system, ailing before Hurricane Katrina, and now on life support. The New Orleans public schools had been largely taken over by the state and there was much talk of “reinventing” them. What better time for the primary stakeholders themselves, public school children, to claim a voice in the school shake-up and to create a culture of civic engagement among middle school youth in New Orleans and beyond.

With expert guidance, foundation support, and professional input from architects, engineers and research scientists, Rethinkers have become an established part of the reform dialogue with clubs now at five schools and plans for more. For them it has been both a learning experience and deeply empowering. New Orleans Recovery School District Superintendent Paul Vallas commented at their 2008 news conference: “A lot of people come to me with problems; very few come with answers. The Rethinkers come to me with solutions and I have no choice but to listen to them.”

School of our dreams

The July 2009 press conference started out with a tour of the “school of our dreams” in which metal detectors are replaced with mood detectors (people). There is a “chill-out zone.” (“If teachers get lounges, we should too.”) Sounds of running water, trees and flowers soothe frayed nerves. Peer leaders (“our friends”) assist in a resolution circle to help resolve conflict where everyone can share their side of the story, discuss what happened, why it happened, and what everyone would like to see happen to resolve the problem. This fosters understanding, shared accountability, and allows negative emotions to shift into something better, dramatically decreasing out-of-school suspensions.

NOLA-Rethinkers-school-entrance-model-promoting-safety-and-dignity-by-Erin-Porter1, Dignity in schools: an unexcused absence, Culture Currents In the “school of our dreams,” student lunches include ingredients from the garden cooked by people with love. No styrofoam trays or sporks – that useless fork/spoon combination. Students understand and respect the whole food system – animals, farmers and the environments, as well as the consumer.

Teachers are purposeful and business-like, but not oppressive. They have high expectations, like Rethinker Terrianna Julien’s sixth grade teacher Mrs. Roberts. They know that motivation comes from patience and understanding. They don’t talk on their cell phones (as did one of Terrianna’s teachers during a LEAP test) or use disrespectful language toward students. And students get a chance to evaluate their teachers and their schools using benchmarks meaningful to them.

Pie in the sky, you are thinking? Touchy/feely wishful thinking? Think again. All of us need to be Rethinkers. This group has results, stats and research verification to show that these solutions are not only possible and reasonable, but practical and cost effective as well.

For instance, the Rethinkers cited the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) Summary of Findings and Recommendations from its examination of six New York City public schools that are successfully maintaining safety while simultaneously promoting a nurturing school environment. The schools all serve at-risk student populations and none currently has metal detectors.

They’ve switched from zero tolerance policies, where certain behaviors trigger severe, mandatory responses, to policies administered by educators with authority and responsibility. This takes discipline out of the hands of police personnel.

NOLA-Rethinkers-Green-Elem.-0709-by-Colin-Lenton, Dignity in schools: an unexcused absence, Culture Currents Strong and compassionate leadership, clear lines of authority and open lines of communication between administrators, teachers, police personnel and students have produced good results. These schools have achieved a significantly higher than average attendance, student stability and graduation rates, as well as a dramatically lower than average incidence of crime and school suspension.

In their report, “Safely with Dignity: Alternatives to Over-Policing of Schools,” NYCLU found that zero tolerance doesn’t work and that it contributes to the School to Prison Pipeline. It states: “Children who are removed from the learning environment for even a few days are more likely to drop out, use drugs, face emotional challenges, become involved with the juvenile justice system and develop criminal records as adults.”

The NYCLU recommends mandating alternatives to harsh discipline: “The New York Department of Education should mandate trainings for all school staff in restorative justice practices – a conflict resolution method that focuses on providing opportunities for all sides of a dispute to define the harms caused by an act and devise remedies – and implement such programs in all city schools.”

Fortunately, New Orleans has a burgeoning network of restorative justice practitioners, trainers and mediators who have experience working in schools, courts and neighborhoods. For more information about these, contact Community Mediation Services at (504) 865-1619. More statistics about the efficacy of restorative practices in schools in the U.S., Canada and Great Britain can be found at the International Institute for Restorative Practices website, www.iirp.org.

Impact and response

The new food provider contract is a done deal, with provisions more palatable to Rethinkers. The Rethink architectural designs for a 21st century “green” bathroom and cafeteria were accepted as part of the Public School Facilities Master Plan for the City of New Orleans.

At the July 2009 press conference, Paul Vallas agreed with and expanded the student-generated report card idea and supported the idea of peer mediation and making students part of the security solution. Although he did not agree to the Rethinker recommendation, “optional use of metal detectors in elementary school,” he did agree to continue giving some latitude to principals regarding their use. The Rethinkers will probably ask for some clarification on that.

Vallas plans to implement a student bill of rights, a student constitution including responsibilities for students and families. Attorney Tracie Washington is helping with that. Although he can’t afford to hire more social workers right now, he’s using many paraprofessionals – AmeriCorps, CitiYear and graduate students from many universities to help teachers.

Vallas says that all teachers will be required to take on counseling responsibilities, organize clubs and enrichment activities, and serve as advisors. The goal is that every adult in a school will follow 10-15 students with all of their problems.

“Give us some guidance and direction,” Vallas says to the Rethinkers, “about how we can improve school security,” noting that “Rethink recommendations can be implemented within the resources we already have. Attitude and culture are more crucial than money.”

So please, Rethinkers, continue to dream big, to act boldly and to remind us that leadership means power among peers, not power over them. Yea, truly, the children shall lead us.

Orissa Arend is a psychotherapist, community organizer, mediator and writer. You can reach her at arendsaxer@bellsouth.net.