Tulane grad students support youth-led Rethinkers

(Photo Courtesy of Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools: Lea Jones, center, joins Rethinkers Jamil Bovia, left, and Davione Peters, right, at the Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools's news conference on July 27, 2012.)

A lot goes into the grades assigned to schools in the local Rethinkers' third annual school food report card and the programming over the summer while schools are out. And two Tulane public health graduate students now know this firsthand.

Over the past school year, Tulane School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine students Shannon Billig and Lea Jones helped Rethinkers conduct their annual school food report card during and helped the organization evaluate the impact of its summer program. Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools selected both interns through the Tulane PRC's practicum internship program, which helps place public health graduate students with local host organizations.

Over the summer, Jones revised and implemented surveys to gauge the Rethinkers' impact on its members. In doing so, the second-year graduate student said, she realized the importance of having youth input in the process.

"This practicum has motivated me to learn more about participatory monitoring and evaluation where young people aren’t just subjects, but partners and directors of the process," Jones said.

During the past school year, Billig helped Rethinkers modify their scoring system for the school food report and analyze the results. Each school and school district or charter organization is different. Some have fully functioning kitchens, while others only have the equipment to reheat prepared foods. To address these types of discrepancies, the grading method changed this year so that not only the individual schools would receive grades but also the food vendors and the school districts.

"We had to look at which questions fell under which authority – who can we engage to address certain areas," Billig said. "Now they're identifying those people who can make those changes."

Seeing the process of implementing a survey from beginning to end was a valuable learning experience, Billig said. And working with the students on the Rethinkers' Food Justice Committee led to intensive discussions about not only the school food surveys but also the local, state and federal policies that influence what foods are served and how student wellness is addressed.

"They were very sophisticated in their thinking," Billig said, noting their ability to clearly link concepts to application.

Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools delivered their annual school food grades, recommendations and work conducted over the summer at a July news conference attended by education advocates, school officials, community organizations and others.
Kids need their schools to support them by providing healthy food and regular physical fitness, reforming discipline codes, and setting up tools to help students cope with stress, the students reported.

Rethinkers held the conference at a local school to close out their summer program, announce the results of their third annual school food report card and share some original art and songs. The school officials on hand for the conference said they would meet with the Rethinkers to discuss next steps.

"They are really pushing us to create great school experiences for our kids," said Dana Peterson, deputy superintendent of external affairs for the Recovery School District.

But not all the recommendations will be easy to implement, said Peterson and Jay Altman, CEO and co-founder of FirstLine Schools, a charter school network. Altman encouraged the students to stay open to discussing how some issues are complex and not cut and dry.

To learn more about Kids Rethink New Orleans School, visit therethinkers.com.

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