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News Briefs 12.24.02

The bells, THE BELLS!

Mistletoe, bells, the scent of pine, bells, snow, bells, lists of who's been naughty and nice, and the ringing of bells all around as you shop this holiday season. And these bells have been ringing in front of red kettles in Rochester since 1900.

            "The whole red kettle concept started with the Salvation Army in San Francisco in the late 1800s, for Thanksgiving meals," says the Salvation Army's Director Of Operations and Communications, Scott Benjamin. "Somewhere along the line, somebody added the bell to attract attention, and it went from there.

            Though the bell is the signature cry at over 80 locations throughout Rochester, it's not the only thing you'll hear. Church choirs, string quartets, brass bands, carolers, guys with harmonicas, even girls with violins man the kettles for charity.

            The Salvation Army begins the drive in early November. "As we get closer to Thanksgiving," says Benjamin, "that's when we're at all the malls and major stores." Last year was a banner year, with the Salvation Army raising $520,000 --- "the highest we'd ever raised," according to Benjamin.

            "The money is used for three things," he says. "Thanksgiving meals, Christmas assistance (toys and warm clothing for kids, food for the entire family), and our winter relief program, which consists of emergency food, medicine, shelter, and clothes. So this money really goes beyond the holidays."

            The bell-ringers, violinists, choirs, jugglers, etc., are a combination of volunteers and seasonal workers in the Salvation Army's job-training program.

            Debbie Benedict and her co-workers from Chase Construction volunteer their time at Greece-Ridge Mall, where she's rung the bell so hard, she's actually dropped it a time or two.

            Seasonal worker Terry Harris (pictured) is a mover and shaker, greeting everyone with a cheery smile and opening doors.

            "I put in the extra effort, open the door, and make 'em feel better about giving," he says. Harris rings the bell Monday through Saturday at Greece-Ridge, and his ears aren't ringing yet. "But I find myself talking about the pot when I go to sleep," he laughs.

--- Frank De Blase

Back to the future

Interim Superintendent Manny Rivera is working on a plan to dump the Rochester School District's middle-school, high-school structure and put most of its seventh through twelfth-graders into combined junior-senior high schools.

            The goal, says School Board President Joanne Giuffrida, is to tackle two major problems: low achievement and overcrowding in the middle schools.

            Rivera hasn't fleshed out the plan yet; he's expected to give the board a formal proposal in about a month. But the concept raises a question: Is the district trying to solve serious problems by simply moving the deck chairs?

            Board members say nobody's looking at the plan as a quick fix. "It's one prong of a multi-pronged approach," says Giuffrida.

            The new structure will put 6th graders back into elementary school. That in itself will help relieve overcrowding in the upper schools. And, says Giuffrida, 6th graders need the smaller schools, closer connection with individual adults, and more stable day of an elementary school.

            Some Rochester 6th graders already attend elementary school rather than middle school, and Giuffrida says there's some indication that they're doing better than those in middle schools. That could be due to demographics: In general, middle and upper-income children in the district have higher achievement rates than do poor children. The district hasn't yet analyzed whether that's a factor in the elementary-school, middle-school difference.

            Rivera's plan would reverse the district's 1988 restructuring, which split junior-senior highs into separate middle schools and high schools and moved many 6th graders out of elementary schools and into middle schools. District officials said then that to boost achievement, young adolescents needed facilities, programs, and services designed especially for them.

            District officials say now that little happened beyond the physical separation of the age groups. "Budget problems came along," says School Board member Rob Brown, and the rest of the plan wasn't implemented.

            Rivera hasn't presented a full-blown proposal, and he hasn't talked about cost. If it's extremely expensive, Brown speculates, "I don't think you could adopt the plan."

            But both he and Giuffrida stress that undoing middle schools on its own won't work miracles. It will have to be accompanied by academic programs and other efforts that address achievement. "I don't think there's any reason to do it unless it raises achievement," says Brown.

            "And," says Brown, "we need to couple any of our changes with a very clear explanation of the kind of resources they're going to take. The important thing is to have the resources to implement the plan."

            That may be one of Rivera's biggest challenges. The district already faces budget problems, as do its major funding sources: the city, county, and state.

Pasty like me

A day after being elected to chair the Monroe County Democratic Party, Molly Clifford held a news conference questioning whether County Executive Jack Doyle is a racist.

            In an interview with the Democrat and Chronicle published December 16, Doyle, referring to the City of Rochester, was quoted as saying "If there was a mayor who looked like me, it would be a whole different landscape." Some community members and political leaders, particularly African-American Democrats, questioned whether Doyle's statement was made in reference to the fact Rochester Mayor Bill Johnson is black and Doyle himself a markedly lighter hue.

            In a brief appearance after Clifford's news conference, Doyle dismissed allegations his remark was literal --- and, thus, racial --- saying his was speaking figuratively, in political terms, about how he feels the city needs a Republican mayor with his style of governing. He called Clifford and company's allegations a "crass political effort" and "partisan politics at their very worst."

            "It should be the responsibility of the media to make inquiry in to [sic] what Jack meant," Clifford was quoted as saying in a press release announcing the news conference. "Certainly that should clear up any misunderstandings that his comments have generated."

            In fact, the media had already inquired into what Doyle meant --- during the actual interview, right after he made the comment --- at which time he had given a similar explanation.

            Clifford says she didn't speak with the reporter who conducted the interview before going public with her concerns, but says someone she knows, "I don't even remember who it was," spoke with him. Though she says she doesn't think Doyle is a racist, she called the statement "curious," "kind of concerning," and "alarming." As for Doyle's explanation, she says. "I don't think that explanation really says much. It says, 'Well, I meant Republican.' Does that mean Republicans ought to look like him, too?"

            Asked if she thought raising such a charged question would do more harm than good by stoking racial tensions unnecessarily, Clifford says that after talking with people of a variety of colors, "there was enough concern there that I was not concerned so much about polarization."

Homophobes beware

On December 17, the State Senate passed the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act (SONDA) by a vote of 34-26. The measure, signed by Gov. George Pataki soon after its passage, adds the words "sexual orientation" to the state's Human Right Law, which already protects people based on their race, sex, religion, national origin, disability, age, and marital status. As a result, it will soon be illegal in New York to deny housing, employment, education, credit, or a hotel room to someone simply because you know or suspect them to be sleeping with someone of the same sex.

            Our region's Republican senators --- Jim Alesi, George Maziarz, and Michael Nozzolio --- all voted against extending those civil rights to gays and lesbians. Democrat Rick Dollinger, in his last day as a senator, voted in favor of the bill.

            Duffy Palmer, upstate board co-chair of the Empire State Pride Agenda --- the gay right organization at the forefront of the fight for SONDA --- was particularly thankful for Dollinger's support of the measure. As for our other senators' failure to protect homosexuals from discrimination, Palmer was baffled.

            Palmer says that based on a past conversation with Alesi, he was under the impression the Perinton senator would support SONDA. "I don't know why he did this," Palmer says of Alesi. "It's very disappointing that an elected official couldn't vote to give someone civil rights. It'd be interesting to hear him give some reason."

            Indeed, it would. But Alesi did not return calls from City seeking comment.

            Palmer says the new statewide law has "real teeth," as compared to the City of Rochester's 2001 ordinance barring discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. That's because it allows victims of discrimination to take their claim to the state's Human Right Commission. Victims can also seek justice and damages in court.

            Employers who fail to implement the law face a $50,000 fine, Palmer says, and "they can be fined even more if anti-gay discrimination is found to be egregious."

            Of course, the battle to protect homosexuals from discrimination is far from over. Palmer says the movement's next goals in New York include covering transgendered individuals under the Human Rights Law, specifically protecting gay youth from harassment, and giving gay and lesbian couples official recognition as families, with equal rights in matters such as adoption.