Youth Media as Education Reform

Hurricane Katrina did not create the problems with public education in New Orleans—it uncovered them. The storm that swamped the substandard schools also pushed the city’s education advocates to mobilize, demanding that standards of excellence exceed pre-Katrina conditions. At the same time, young people who had to attend schools outside the city learned what education could look like elsewhere.
Since Katrina, youth have been engaged in the recovery process and reform initiatives like never before. Young people have been to Board of Elementary and Secondary Education meetings, demanding more teachers and fewer security guards, staged demonstrations during stakeholder meetings, used street theater to create awareness about the school to prison pipeline, and organized town halls and news conferences to draft recommendations for better schools, sharing their concerns about public education.
Their work is not specific to this region, this age group or even this time in history. But it is work that is long overdue. Our public school system needs reform everywhere—from Baltimore, to Chicago, to Los Angeles—but through a combination of circumstances and timing, New Orleans is setting the standard for recovery in the United States.
Educators in the field can learn from the burgeoning youth movement in New Orleans, as well as from the strategies that youth media organizations like Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools (Rethink) devise in these times, such as using traditional and new media to advise administrative strategies and command young people’s respect as leaders and change agents in their schools. Along with adult allies, youth recognize that the debate on education reform must include and honor the voices of students who are all too often shut out of decision-making processes that inform education policies.
Rethink is a middle school focused, youth-driven leadership development program that creates reform initiatives for New Orleans public schools. Rethink organizes press events to amplify the collective voice of students, using the media to position them as experts in schools and as a resource for tackling the public education crisis in New Orleans.

In June 2006, Rethink hosted its first summer program. Twenty middle school students who had returned to the city were brought together to share their experiences of evacuation and attending schools outside the city. Students exchanged stories about schools in Texas, Georgia and other parts of the country that had fully functioning restrooms; libraries filled with actual books; cafeterias that offered a variety of food options; and classrooms with computers, smart boards and enough chairs to accommodate every student.
As each student told his or her story, questions about the conditions in New Orleans public schools began to surface. The summer program helped students to understand that they deserved the best schools regardless of race, neighborhood or income. They wanted to use their voices to advocate for reform policies that guaranteed quality education in public schools. Rethink staff prepared students to use media to move their message.
Youth media educators prepare Rethinkers to present their ideas to the media at their annual news conference that immediately follows their summer program. Educators prepare students by facilitating conversations about specific target points and how to present information. Students rehearse the news event for a week before the actual news conference. Meanwhile, educators contact the media, write press releases, make the pitch and put together a press packet. The goal is to get coverage on radio and TV talk shows, public affairs programs, and any outlet that might take an interest in youth and their issues. In addition, each summer student participates in filmmaking for a full week, alongside a professional photographer, to launch media on our website.
These media strategies have led to some policy victories at the district level. Inviting decision-makers and school officials to respond to “Rethinker” recommendations gives a public record to use as a tool for accountability. The coverage Rethink receives from news events helps position the young Rethinkers as experts in public education. Programs like Rethink raise student awareness about the conditions in the city’s public schools, using media to approach school officials and decision-makers about changes students want to see.
We have found that through hosting press conferences with local policy makers covered by the media, young people have a strategic and effective platform to state the issues they aim to resolve in their school. The experience of leading these conferences and policy debates for youth producers is key to youth media as a strategy for education reform. Rethink supports young people to participate in mock trials, research restorative justice models, engage local shrimpers and farmers, cook with chefs, and design school facilities with architects in order to create viable recommendations for change in the New Orleans public school system.
Challenges and Successes
Rethink is staffed by three full-time employees, three part-time employees and one Avodah Service Corp staff person. Funding has been difficult in this economy and in general, only 1% of the New Orleans city budget is committed to youth programs. Youth media work is extremely necessary in this context—and schools are simply not equipped to deal with the mental and emotional fall-out of the crisis that exists in New Orleans. What’s worse, many of the funders that were once interested in supporting rebuilding and recovery work along the Gulf Coast have moved on. The challenges remain.
In general, there are not enough afterschool programs to meet the needs of the city’s youth. Rethink provides middle school aged youth an outlet to learn, express themselves and simply have something fun and constructive to do with their time. This age group is too young to work and do not have the same options as older teens. Though this group tends to have additional needs—they are just beginning to be targeted by mainstream media, they are grappling with identities (skin color, race, gender, and fashion), they are developing cliques, and looking to be a part of something. Despite these needs, middle-schoolers are very open-minded and eager to learn.
Suggestions to the Field and Best Practices
Bring students into a space where they can dream big about excellent education. Young people need opportunities to talk about the education standards they receive in local middle and high schools. Youth media captures these stories and ought to help students question the education they receive and what changes they would like to create in their own districts. Emphasize transformational leadership—the type of leadership that promotes “power among” rather than “power over”—and build relationships in which people share power in creating change.
Steer students to the media as they identify small and large changes in their schools that are newsworthy. For example, in New Orleans students typically use sporks—a utensil that poses as a spoon/fork combination—to eat school meals. Students found them to be completely useless. They recommended that the Recovery School District (RSD)—the state’s takeover of failing schools—replace the spork with a fork, knife and spoon. Entitled, “A Spork in the Road,” the 2008 Rethink news conference offered something that was interesting to media—middle schoolers telling stories of eating with their hands or drinking gumbo from a bowl because they are given an ineffective utensil to eat with by the school district.
Pitch young people’s stories to local and national media. At Rethink, educators spend hours pitching stories to local and national media, starting with a national media search and a media list based on the topics and themes each summer. Initially, an email blast is sent to 300 recipients. The next couple weeks are spent on the phone with 50-60 media outlets carefully pitching the students’ recommendations. These pitches rouse editors and reporters. For instance, at the 2009 press conference, “Dignity in Schools,” students decided to transform a metal detector into a “mood detector” at a school’s entrance to address the feeling of criminalization that detectors emphasize while promoting dignity in schools.
Invite experts in to strengthen students’ understanding of reform initiatives. Using the example above, the mood detector was created with the support of an architect that students invited to transform the school entrance. The expertise of the architect helped raise the visual power of youth as decision-makers and advocates. In addition, Rethink students spoke with an attorney who addressed the school-to-prison pipeline. She shared research and findings on alternatives to expulsion and suspensions. Working with experts increases the credibility of youth participation in school reform.
Next Steps
Youth media, in practice, often helps facilitate a process of self-discovery and the power of youth to create opportunity out of oppression. Young people are true change makers—access, tools, opportunity and support is all they need. However, youth media has a larger role to play. It is essential that youth media participates and engages young people to redefine and reform public education. As a youth media organization, Rethink is not just about influencing policies or practices but addressing and creating solutions to systemic problems that plague schools.
In order for youth media to play a much larger role in education reform, local and national organizations can start by helping students find small to large issues in their schools, getting connected to experts that can support and enhance their claim, and arranging media-covered press conferences with local policy makers. In addition, pitching to have youth produced work read in the paper, captured on TV, or blogged about is empowering. In this role, youth media can guarantee youth engagement and participation in the transformation of public education and the community at large.
Dee Dee Green is the program director for Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools. Dee Dee has been directing youth programs in the south for the past ten years. She is a 2007 New Voices Fellow and is in her third year with Rethink.
Mallory Falk is a community organizer for Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools and a member of AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps. She is in her first year with Rethink.