07/22/2010 04:33 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

New Orleans Students Challenge Schools on Use of Oil

"Who is really responsible for the oil spill in the Gulf," a group of New Orleans students ask during a mock trial they recently staged, "BP or everyone who uses oil?"

Perhaps, a student named Jordan suggests by way of an answer, oil companies are a lot like gun manufacturers. If someone is shot and killed, do you blame the person who made the gun or the one who used it?

Responsibility for the spill, which has spread over 171 miles of shoreline from Louisiana to Florida, is clearly not a simple either-or proposition. The designers and operators of the Deepwater Horizon are to blame for shortcuts, lack of preparedness, and errors in judgment that, according to the Wall Street Journal, likely caused the explosion. (For example, the manager appointed to oversee the final well tests had so little experience that, in his own words, he was on the rig to "learn about deep water").

The U.S. government is also to blame for requiring BP to base its preparations on spill models that were both outdated and grossly inaccurate. (Even a catastrophic offshore spill, regulators said, should never reach shore.)

But when these 12- to 14-year-old judges delivered their verdict, the party they held chiefly responsible was the American people. And as members of a student-based school reform group called the Rethinkers, these young people now have a recommendation for New Orleans schools: Move toward becoming oil-free by 2015, the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

"If we want to prevent another oil spill, we need to start weaning ourselves off this product and begin searching for new ideas," says ninth-grader Danny Do, whose father is a shrimper. "Now is the perfect time to get moving, and schools are a great place to start!"

This may sound about as plausible as "the dog ate my homework," and the Rethinkers acknowledge that their vision is an ambitious one. But they have both the track record and the supporters to suggest that they are not a bunch of naïve kids who can be easily dismissed.

The press conference they held last week to announce this and other recommendations for school reform in New Orleans attracted The Times-Picayune, ABC News, and other media outlets as well as community and education leaders--notably, Paul Vallas, whose work as CEO of Chicago Public Schools was praised by President Clinton and is now superintendent of the Louisiana Recovery School District, which is focused on transforming underperforming schools into successful ones.

"Paul is obsessed with the Rethinkers and wants Rethinkers clubs in all schools," says Siona LaFrance, Vallas's chief of staff. "He likes that the kids are thinking and challenging authority, and that all of their suggestions are based on a lot of consideration. And he likes that this is a continuing effort."

Founded after Hurricane Katrina devastated what was already one of the worst school systems in America, the Rethinkers came together under the guidance of founder Jane Wholey and others to offer a thoughtful student perspective.

According to Wholey, who has advised communities from Appalachia to the Amazon about how to tell their stories, "I say to the kids, 'You live in a country where people don't respect kids. If we're trying to give dignity to your voice, we have to give you something to talk about where you are the stone-cold expert. There is no one on Earth who can say you're not an expert on schools.'"

And so, for the past five years, through student clubs in six New Orleans schools and six-week summer programs that culminate each year in press conferences, the Rethinkers have offered a series of carefully considered recommendations to school leaders.

Among them:

• Install sinks in cafeterias so students can wash their hands before eating; eliminate sporks; and provide a greater variety of fresh, local food.
• Find the money to buy all bathroom supplies, including toilet paper.
• Replace metal detectors with "mood detectors," teams of students who meet and assess young people's frame of mind as they arrive in the morning.

Elimination of metal detectors was less than enthusiastically embraced by school officials. But, says LaFrance, "we're now incorporating a lot of the things they have asked for." Sporks, for example, are out; hand-washing stations are in; and the food service provider has been asked to offer more fresh food (a request that will present new challenges in light of the spill's impact on the shrimp industry and local agriculture.)

But what about oil-free schools?

"I think it is certainly something we can consider," says LaFrance.

"We know "oil-free schools" sounds easy to dismiss because it's such a big vision," notes Mallory Falk, a recent Middlebury College graduate and community organizer who came to New Orleans to work with the Rethinkers. "That is why our focus over the coming year is to come up with realistic, practical ways for schools to move toward being oil-free."

This year, for example, they have offered four simple suggestions: Start measuring energy waste (including air conditioners set too high and lights left on unnecessarily), form student green teams to identify ways to reduce waste and convince other kids to get with the program, eliminate the use of incandescent light bulbs, and recycle.

A simple beginning, but stay tuned. The Rethinkers plan to meet throughout the new school year to develop more specifics. And they have already received a grant from the U.S. Green Building Council to film a documentary about their experience.

Lisa Bennett is the communications director of the Center for Ecoliteracy ( and a former fellow at Harvard University's Center on Press, Politics, and Public Policy in the John F. Kennedy School of Government. She is a contributor to the Center's book, Smart by Nature: Schooling for Sustainability (Watershed Media/University of California Press, 2009).