School days in court
On September 17, the Greater Rochester Area Coalition for Education got one step closer to winning fairness for kids.
The Court of Appeals, New York's highest court, agreed to hear what's become known as the GRACE lawsuit. GRACE and its allies feel the state must adjust its funding policies, or even reconfigure school districts, to ameliorate the effects of concentrated poverty. The legal strategy rests on what has been judged a constitutional guarantee of "a sound, basic education" --- and an equal one --- for every child.
"We're very pleased by the Court of Appeals decision to accept review," says Bryan Hetherington, a GRACE attorney. The victory, he says, will help "protect the needs of kids in Rochester."
The state might opt for combining chunks of urban and suburban districts to achieve better balance, says Hetherington. Imagine, for example, a district that would blend parts of Irondequoit with the city's northeast quadrant. That layout, says Hetherington, would be compact enough so that transportation wouldn't be a hassle. "There's new data out there on how low-income kids do in suburban schools," he says. The data, he says, indicate these students do "a great deal better" than in schools plagued by poverty, he says.
The courtroom may soon be cooking with more than the GRACE suit. The downstate Campaign for Fiscal Equity has appealed a lower court decision that said a mere eighth-grade education would satisfy the constitutional guarantee. The CFE remains committed to improving the New York City schools, which are burdened with what author-educator Jonathan Kozol termed "savage inequalities."
Another reform-minded group has formed in Rochester, too. On September 19, local activists --- including Fairport school supervisor William Cala, city councilmember Wade Norwood, and the Rev. Errol Hunt of Memorial AME Zion Church --- launched a chapter of the statewide Alliance for Quality Education. The AQE is now gathering signatures on a "People's Brief" to protest the idea that an eighth-grade education is enough.
Hot line for health
Access to health care is a treacherous side-canyon of the Great Economic Divide. Low-income and uninsured people often have difficulty getting necessary care and medications, and they sometimes wind up going to the emergency room when all else fails.
But now the Rochester Primary Care Network --- with the help of Unity Health, Rochester General Hospital, Preferred Care, the Blues, the Monroe County Medical Society, the county health department, et al. --- has a partial solution.
On September 20, RPCN, which supports a local network of neighborhood medical and dental centers and other facilities serving the medically needy, unveiled its "Affordable Health Line." By calling 328-7000, low-income people in the area can get referrals to medical, dental, mental-health, and substance-abuse services near their homes. (The lines, staffed by qualified medical professionals, are open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day.) The service also provides information on lower-cost health insurance, including state programs like Child Health Plus.
Esther Brill, RPCN's director of Children and Youth Services, says this is "a one-stop shopping concept" --- a means to simplify what has been a complex system of health-related supply and demand. But the service will have the human touch, too: Brill promises callers will get "a tremendous amount of 'TLC.'"
There should be plenty of callers. "According to the 2000 census, there are 51,000 people [in the area] who live below the poverty line," says RPCN head Arthur Collier. He notes that some existing services for low-income people aren't being used to capacity --- though he says RPCN is looking for more dental services to meet the need.
Made for walking
Nationally-known pedestrian advocate Dan Burden waltzed into Rochester September 17 --- and in a program titled "Creating Walkable Communities," he walked a local audience through the myriad ways of building livable urban-suburban spaces.
The Florida-based Burden, once a National Geographic photographer, said he's visited more than 1,300 communities in his years as advocate. He told some bad news that Upstate New Yorkers know from their own backyard: Every place in America that's had zero percent population growth in recent years has seen a 25 percent increase in vehicular traffic. That, he said, is partly because of the physical layout of new neighborhoods, shopping centers, and other destinations, all of which force people to use cars (if they have them).
"The purpose of cities is to minimize travel," said Burden. That means placing workplaces, homes, and public spaces near each other; integrating roadways, bikeways, sidewalks, and greenspaces; and installing "traffic-calming" measures to take back the streets for pedestrians.
"People want real towns," he said --- not tons of asphalt, clouds of exhaust, and time-consuming trips to run errands or drop in on friends.
Burden's visit was sponsored by the Genesee Transportation Council, which funnels some public funding into pedestrian- and bike-friendly enhancements. GTC head Steve Gleason said one item on the agenda is making Rochester well-known nationally for its recreational trail system. We've already surpassed 90 percent of US communities in this regard, he said.
Dan Burden bestowed a special honor on the newly completed Atlantic-University Avenue reconstruction and its "ARTWalk," which sports work by local creative talents. The project, said Burden, is "America's best road diet" on display --- that is, it shows how a congested street can be made lean but less mean, and infinitely more interesting.