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Team Building 

Nothing opens a kid's eyes like having one-on-one conversations with people who've made positive career and life choices.

Education is often portrayed as the great equalizer, a game in which all players begin at the same place with equal chances of success. But that's not how it really works. Depending on who's in your school, your house and your neighborhood, you may or may not have good "coaches" to help you play the game. The right kind of coach -- with the right kind of expectations -- can make a huge difference. Players who hang out with doctors and lawyers are more likely to see themselves as potential doctors or lawyers. The same goes for kids who are exposed to public relations consultants, directors of government agencies, art gallery owners, legal secretaries, urban planners, and even journalists. On the other hand, kids without professional role models rarely even consider those career paths as being among their options. That, sadly, is how the education game actually plays out.

Maurice Ruffin, a New Orleans lawyer, knows that all too well. Ruffin chaired the mock trial committee of the Young Lawyers' Section of the New Orleans Bar Association this year. He graduated from one of the city's magnet schools, McDonogh 35, in 1995. In spite of that relative advantage, Ruffin says, "I didn't have a meaningful conversation with an attorney until after high school." The contact made him change direction. After completing his degree at the University of New Orleans, Ruffin earned a law degree at Loyola University. Today Ruffin, not yet 30, is an associate at Chaffe McCall LLC.

It's a simple proposition: exposure opens doors. That's why we commend the New Orleans Bar Association for reaching out to local public high school students and involving them in the mock trial competition held here last month. The competition gave the students, who practiced for weeks to "play lawyer" against teams from other schools, a real challenge -- and a jolt of confidence.

The effort would not have gone anywhere without the lawyers who coached the competing teams. Ben Franklin Senior High School was able to recruit lawyers from among its parent population. The other two Orleans public schools in the competition -- John F. Kennedy Senior High and L. E. Rabouin Senior High -- came up short of lawyer parents. At those schools, volunteer lawyers coached mock trial teams.

New Orleans Public Schools Superintendent Anthony Amato is urging New Orleanians to embrace that kind of hands-on volunteerism. At a recent breakfast at Junior Achievement of Greater New Orleans' Exchange City, Amato talked about growing up poor and thinking that economic knowledge and entrepreneurial skills were something that other kids got by magic. "Kids absolutely find out about economic development at home, talking around the dinner table with their parents," Amato said. But if mom is working 12 hours a day, there's no sitting around the dining table; sometimes, he said, there's no table. "I'm talking about myself, by the way," Amato said.

With its signature schools and its thematic Small Learning Communities, our public school system hopes to give students real career options. But nothing opens a kid's eyes like having one-on-one conversations with people who've made positive career and life choices. For this reason, Junior Achievement (JA) is calling on local professionals to get involved in a new JA program that will ask for 45 minutes a day for five days from April 25 through 29. The only other requirement is 90 minutes of training.

If it can recruit enough volunteers, the JA program will introduce a critical mass of local kids in grades K-8 to options they might otherwise never have. So far, though, the community has come up short. The program needs 400 volunteers to serve just 30 percent of our local public schools, but to date they've heard from only 250. Thousands of professionals gripe loudly every day about the city's public schools. Where are they now?

"Lots of people want to sit around and complain," says Dionne Rousseau, a lawyer at Jones Walker who's thrown herself into the JA effort. With Jones Walker executive committee chair Bill Hines, Rousseau is leading a team of 10 partners, 16 associates and nine staff members from the firm who will adopt Albert Wicker Elementary School during the last week of April. "My view is, if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem," says Rousseau. "It's cliche, but I haven't found a better way to put it."

For those who maintain that the public schools aren't options for their kids, here's a way to help move those schools forward. The deadline to join is April 1. With 150 more volunteers, JA could cover seven more schools during its April push -- and meet the first-year goal for JA's biggest commitment to an urban school system anywhere in the country. Now there's a news story we'd like to report: New Orleans plays the game a little differently -- by building teams between professionals and urban kids.


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