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Buddhism's variety, a school-budget challenge, seeking 'Democracy Now!'

Reader feedback 6.30.04 

SCHOOL DISTRICT MUST ASSESS ITS PROGRAMS

We would like to elaborate on the information provided in the June 9 article related to steps the Rochester City School District might take to resolve its budget gap or at least to make the case for sustained support from its funders ("Caught in the Middle: The City Schools' Struggle").

            Rob Brown of the School Board expressed consternation at the observation of some observers that the district does not routinely conduct reviews and assessments of the effectiveness of its programs and policies. At the same time, he questions the relevancy of such assessments, routinely done in the private sector, for education-related activities. He nonetheless asked for suggestions on what programs are in need of such analysis.

            At the risk of sounding flip, we respond, "What current District program is not in need of such analysis, to determine if the costs are 'worth it' in terms of outcomes achieved --- most especially, increases in student achievement and graduation rates?"

            At times of budgetary stress, every public-sector entity must make the case that each dollar raised from the public is being used as judiciously as possible. (Even school districts, which in recent years have relied increasingly on nearly guaranteed state largesse, still need to justify that each program is worth the money spent to operate it.) As long as taxpayers in one form or another pay the bills, such accountability is necessary. Equally important, we owe it to our students to make sure that the resources are adding value in terms of improved student performance.

            In some cases, a cost-effectiveness study may show that costs do not justify the expense, at least as the program currently operates, as was the case in a past evaluation we did of the Young Mothers Program. We found that participants in that relatively expensive program actually graduated at a lower rate than comparable students who did not participate. In other cases, an analysis may show that more money should be spent on a program that has proven results, as is the case for our recent evaluation of the Hillside Work-Scholarship Program. Its participants graduate at twice the rate of comparable students who do not participate.

            Throughout our 90 years of observing --- and often partnering with --- the Rochester school district, we have advocated that the district review and ensure the effectiveness of every program and policy on a three-year cycle. These evaluations would go well beyond such statewide assessments as the 4th and 8th-grade state standardized tests, which Rob Brown offered as the example of district program evaluation.

            And in that context, we would suggest that evaluations are necessary to assess the impact of specific initiatives, if any, designed to improve results on those tests, such as the 10 percent "pass" rate of Rochester's 8th-graders for math.

            Do we have a list of specific programs that should be assessed --- starting this year? To start the discussions, how about StudentSupportCenters and WellnessCenters, now that the district has reorganized the middle and high-school grades?Or the district's truancy-prevention policy?Or the Young Mothers Program? Or the drop-out prevention program slated for possible termination by the district?

            Do these programs contribute adequately to improved student achievement and graduation rates, relative to their costs and to other ways the district could be providing services? Are there improvements that should be made to increase their cost effectiveness and relevance to students' needs? Would other approaches have even more impact on student performance, for similar or reduced costs?

            And beyond individual programs, what trends should the district be routinely analyzing and reporting to the public? How about studying this conundrum: we have succeeded as a community in significantly improving the readiness of our kindergarteners for school, based in part on the district's early-childhood programs, which have proven their excellence in past evaluations. Yet performance declines in early elementary years, and achievement on state math and English tests goes down the longer students stay in the District.

            And what about the problem that student enrollment is projected to continue to decline, requiring the district to present for public discussion a plan to close schools?

            Routine, every-three-year evaluations of programs and policies would allow the District to tout the need for increased funding and/or replication of its successful programs and would increase credibility with the public and financial support from funders. We welcome the implementation of such practices by the district, in the interests of both taxpayers and the students of our city.

            Patricia Malgieri, president and CEO, and Don Pryor, director of human service analysis, Center for Governmental Research, Rochester


THE RICHNESS OF BUDDHISM

Joseph Sorrentino's spot on local Buddhists' "Change Your Mind Day" (Metro Ink, June 16) highlights some of the stereotypes we hold about Buddhism and Buddhists, but the realities right here in Rochester are at once richer and more complex.

            While the ZenCenter is the granddaddy among local Buddhist institutions (founded in the mid-1960s) and was followed by the Amitabha Foundation (Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism), both attract relatively small numbers of almost exclusively Caucasian-American convert Buddhists.

            Anthropological research we are doing at MonroeCommunity College, under a grant from HarvardUniversity's Pluralism Project, has "mapped" no less than five additional Buddhist temples in the city and immediate suburbs; all were founded by refugee Southeast Asian populations fleeing war and genocide in Vietnam, Laos or Cambodia. (For details, visit www.monroecc.edu/go/pluralism). For these vibrant diaspora communities, the temple, with its huge golden Buddha images, its resident cadre of orange-robed monks, and its colorful ceremonial calendar, provides a spiritual, cultural, and emotional anchor in an often turbulent and alien world, as well as a symbolic link to the homeland.

            While it is true that for many western converts to Buddhism, meditation promises a key to some kind of personal transformation or spiritual growth, it assumes somewhat less importance in the day-to-day concerns of ethnic Buddhists. For these Southeast Asian-Americans and their children, (in the Rochester area they number in the many hundreds), their many acts of daily merit-making are balanced or rewarded by the spiritual food provided by resident or visiting monks. That this sacred contract has taken root and thrives in Buddhism's new American setting makes it imperative that we not only acknowledge religious diversity but embrace a more engaged pluralism for all faiths, as well as for those with no faith.

            David H. Day, Laney Road, Rochester (Day is professor of anthropology at MonroeCommunity College)


WHAT 'BALANCE'?

Thank you for covering Metro Justice's campaign to bring the independent award-winning radio program, Democracy Now!, to Rochester ("Democracy... Later?," June 9). We think Democracy Now! and WXXI are a good fit, and so far hundreds of WXXI members have agreed, urging the station to try the program for a year. (It is free for the first year.) We will continue our campaign to mobilize member feedback to WXXI, and we invite people to get involved by contacting our office.

            It is difficult to read between the lines of Jeanne Fisher's statement that WXXI accepts only programs that are balanced and objective. Certainly it is disingenuous for Fisher to claim that NPR is objective and that WXXI talk-show hosts are neutral. Curt Smith's ode to Ronald Reagan was an example of his lack of neutrality. In fact, last year Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting released a study showing that in the run-up to the war, as millions of Americans were protesting against an invasion of Iraq, PBS's NewsHour with Jim Lehrer was just as bad as the rest of the corporate news. During that period, while a majority of Americans opposed unilateral intervention, of 393 on-air sources for stories about Iraq (on all network news shows), only three were from anti-war groups. Balanced? Objective?Neutral?

            We understand that public radio has been under attack for being "too liberal" by the far-right conservatives, but recent FAIR studies show that NPR actually tilts to the right, not the left. In a recent issue of the New Yorker, Ken Auletta exposed the degree to which the Corporation for Public Broadcasting has been influenced by conservative politicians. This month PBS will roll out a magazine-format show hosted by the conservative co-host of CNN's Crossfire, Tucker Carlson.

            PBS also has a show in the pipeline anchored by Paul Gigot, the conservative Wall Street Journal editorial-page chief who was skewered by Al Franken for playing fast and loose with the facts. Meanwhile, Bill Moyers Now will be shrunk to half an hour, and all funding will be cut.

            WXXI members don't want the station to turn into Fox News.

            Good journalism is about knowing whom to interview and what questions to ask. That's why Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman has won so many prestigious awards. According to Michael Della Carpini, dean of the AnnenbergSchool for Communication, Goodman is carrying on the tradition of muckraking journalism. "She's not an editorialist," he says. "She sticks to the facts. She's not a Rush Limbaugh-type who is simply letting her ideology drive what she does. She provides points of view that make you think, and she comes at it by saying, 'Who are we not hearing from in the traditional media?'"

            Obviously WXXI has its biases. All journalists do. This issue is merely a red herring. The bottom line is that WXXI members seem to want the station to try Democracy Now!. Wouldn't it be great if 1370-AM attracted new (and younger) listeners to the 9 a.m. slot (1370 currently replays Morning Edition for the third time at that time). At KUNM in New Mexico, Democracy Now generated 22 percent more membership dollars per hour than Morning Edition during the station's membership drive last March.

            We'd love to meet with the WXXI Community Advisory Board to respond to the misperceptions about Democracy Now!.

            Jon Greenbaum, Metro Justice, Rochester

Democracy Now!, with award-winning interviewer Amy Goodman (George Polk Award, Robert F Kennedy Prize for International Reporting) has scooped the 911 Commission, "60 Minutes," and public television's "NewsHour" on major issues. Let me tell you about the March 31 show I heard on WEOS at 89.7 from Geneva.

            In a nearly half-hour interview, former FBI translator Sibel Edmonds, hired shortly after 9-11, explained in detail that the FBI had information that an attack using airplanes was planned. She documented that Condoleezza Rice's claim of White House ignorance was "an outrageous lie."

            Edmonds was fired but did testify before the 9-11 Commission. Under a gag order ("State Secrets Privilege") imposed by the attorney general, her brief testimony did not grab headlines.

            And this is where the value of a skilled investigative journalist as interviewer comes into play: In the tradition of Terry Gross and Diane Rehm, who never take sides but know how to probe on-air, Amy Goodman schedules long interviews. Despite that gag order, listeners were provided a broad context of events from this translator, who had been hired by the FBI to re-translate downloaded messages, many of which were sloppily "summarized" by inept translators.

            Having heard that interview, I believe I have reliable information, and it leads me to be very skeptical of the testimony presented this past week to the 9-11 Commission. I don't believe that it was solely ineptitude by the intelligence agencies that allowed the attacks.

            I urge readers to demand that WXXI carry Democracy Now!weekday mornings. It might replace the third repetition of Morning Edition. The website "democracynow.org" provides an archive of every show. Judge for yourself.

            Richard Rosen, Edgerton Street, Rochester

"Democracy...later?" provided excellent coverage of WXXI's refusal to add Amy Goodman's "Democracy Now" to its AM radio programs. WXXI claims its policy "calls for balance." But what is "political balance?" and what is the political center?

            Let's define "center" as meeting a set of minimum but acceptable standards for basic services. For example, most of us probably would agree that the minimum wage should be at least enough for a family of four with one full-time worker to rise to the official poverty level.

            We probably would agree there should be enough affordable housing so that no one needs to be homeless; that all should have health-insurance coverage for essentials; that public schools should at least have enough books; that everyone should be able to purchase enough food to avoid malnutrition; that the air should be safe to breathe, water safe to drink, and the environment clean enough that it will not cause children to be poisoned.

            If something like that were our definition of "center," it would leave plenty of room for us to be divided between leftists who want higher standards and rightists who want lower ones. Since our whole population fails to meet even these "minimum but acceptable" standards, it follows that our community is right of center --- as are most of the politicians and experts interviewed on WXXI.

            Surely, to achieve a true balance, we need to allow space for an objective journalist like Amy Goodman.

            Peter Mott, South Main Street, Pittsford


NUISANCE CALLS

One bad business in a commercial strip can cause consumers to boycott the whole area, says Neighborhood Empowerment Team Director Rod Cox-Cooper ("Risky Business," June 16). "The problem of illegal businesses is of such a magnitude that we have to do something about them for the sake our neighborhoods," he says.

            Although I applaud the efforts of Mr. Cox-Cooper and Co., I would like to address his efforts to remedy nuisance neighbors. I have called the Net Office in 14621, also 311 and 911 and Animal Control. This has done nothing to change the behavior of the neighbors. They are not a priority.

            What would you do if your neighbor played hip-hop music so loudly that it vibrated the coffee in your cup on your front porch? That starts every weekend morning around 9:30, and stops about 2 p.m.

            How would Mr. Cox-Cooper feel if a neighbor across the street began to mow his front lawn at 9:30 at night? How would he feel if he could not use his back yard because his backyard neighbor failed to clean up the "digestive remains" of the family Rottweiler?

            Or how about the neighbor who does his arc-welding at 10:30 at night, fires up the outboard motor on his boat, and adjusts the volume of the public-address system on his boat, which runs through such a small speaker that the only thing we ever hear is feedback? This neighbor has no backyard; it is filled with cars on blocks and a motor home, also on blocks. The same guy snow-blows his lawn at midnight.

            I won't mention the lady who owns the sheep dog that barks all night long: four barks, pause; four barks, pause.

            Mr. Cox-Cooper wants to fine business owners to support NET enforcement efforts. What is he doing about nuisance neighbors? Is there a plan in the works?

            To date, every contact with his beloved NET offices has been a failure. I know that the law can't be everywhere at once, but there are laws on the books, and they need to be enforced every now and then. C'mon, Rod: let's do something about this before more people decide to leave.

            Tom Catalano, Rochester


HOMEGROWN ABUSE

By now, we know well the terrible story of the abuse of Iraqi prisoners. President Bush said a few months ago, "What took place in that prison doesn't reflect the America I know."

            The president may not know America, or Texas, then. For example, in September 1996, while he was governor, guards at the Brazoria County jail carried out a drug raid on inmates, which was videotaped, according to a Reuter's story. During the raid, several inmates were forced to strip and lie on the ground. A dog attacked some of the prisoners, and one of them was bitten on the leg.

            Guards jabbed at prisoners with stun guns and made them crawl along the floor. They dragged the bitten prisoner face down back to his cell. Even though he was bleeding, he wasn't given medical treatment for several hours.

            Here in New York State, prisoner abuse has been reported at the Southport Correctional Facility near Elmira, according to the March-April issue of Judicia,the Judicial Process Commission's newsletter.

            Why isn't disgust evinced when prisoner abuse takes place here in US? Some people say the prisoners deserve it, that it's an eye for an eye. But, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind."

            Scott Fisher, Broad Street, Rochester


BAIT AND SWITCH?

I'm what Time Warner has declared a "loyal" customer who has local telephone service through my cable. Time Warner has decided to discontinue this local service (at $12.96 per month) in favor of a new service that bundles local and long-distance together for $44.95 per month.

            For those who decide that this is a bad deal, they suggest that we are free to switch to other providers, at our own expense for the switch-over fees. Time Warner is threatening that these same loyal customers will be disconnected if we don't switch. The ironic thing is that most of Time Warner's local telephone customers were once loyal Frontier customers until they enticed people to join them by offering a lower cost service and free switch-over.

            Clearly, Time Warner is more concerned with immediate profits rather than with serving customers well and reaping the appropriate rewards.

            Barry Silverstein, Brighton


WRITING TO CITY

We welcome and encourage readers' letters for publication. Send them to: themail@rochester-citynews.com or The Mail, City Newspaper, 250 North Goodman Street, Rochester 14607.

            Our guidelines: We don't publish anonymous letters --- and we ask that you include your street name and city/town/village. We don't publish letters that have been sent to other media. While we don't restrict length, letters of under 350 words have a greater chance of being published. We do edit letters for clarity and brevity. And in general we don't publish letters (or longer "op-ed" pieces) from the same writer more often than about once every two months.

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