Letters for April 10, 2008

Letter of the week
Success? No peas in rice

I’ve often thought that there should be greater planning when choosing a restaurant to grace with your presence. Of course, taste and food preparation are pre-eminent. However, issues like atmosphere and customer service can’t be overlooked. When you have all these elements working in concert, you have culinary brilliance.

A restaurant is not a place to establish some sort of caste system, where you go out of your way to serve those who look like they can pay and leave a good tip and ignore someone who doesn’t fit your description of success.

In this region, we all have to become our own version of a good critic and make a list of restaurants for all occasions, whether the family gathering variety or the late-night insomniac last-refuge-for-solace cafe type.

The word restaurant actually comes for the French word restaurateur, which means to restore. This is clearly the role that should be embraced by anyone who decides to cook for a living. Any other raison d’etre relative to the world of food is poorly conceived.

However (and it’s a sad fact), my observation is that in Sacramento, these qualities seem to fade as you head east in the city. The restaurants that fire on all cylinders seem to be in the south area or downtown.

Travelers don’t venture to a distant city to take in the local version of a familiar chain (not to say they don’t eat there). That is often necessary in order to make a safe and palatable choice. However, for the adventurous, there has to be some sense of presence, character and style. The passion for living and food should be tasted in the most humble meal. If that happens, you have a real recipe for success.

I was entertained by the Food Network show, Throwdown with Bobby Flay. He challenged the restaurateur who’d created the restaurant La Fonda Boricua in Spanish Harlem. The food challenge was for arroz con pollo.

I can’t believe Bobby Flay put peas in his rice. Yuck. Sorry if I made you hurl.

Kirk Parkes
West Sacramento

Bravo, darling Nykki

Re “American-style ass-kickin’” (SN&R Letter of the Week, April 3):

Nykki Sims makes a very good point—we have Third World poverty in this country, which should be addressed before we worry about what’s going on halfway around the world.

Shortly after we were married, my husband took me on a drive through rural San Diego County and stopped on a rise overlooking a village that resembled exactly the one in the adopt-a-foreign-child commercial: cardboard shacks with tin roofs, hand-dug gutters filled with trash and sewage, no electricity or running water. I asked, “When did we cross the border?”

He responded, “We didn’t.” Pointing into the distance, he said, “The border is the other side of the village.”

My husband told me there were dozens of places like this and thousands of people living in squalor in San Diego County alone. Yet the media focus only on poverty elsewhere, and the people closer to home get no help whatsoever. Who sends their “price of a cup of coffee a day” to help the starving children living in California?

Perhaps SN&R and your readers can sponsor a poor village in California rather than sending our charitable dollars abroad.

Karen M. Campbell

Proposition 98 is a complicated issue

Re “Taking advantage” by Cosmo Garvin (SN&R Frontlines, April 3):

Though I am undecided on Proposition 98 and generally side with the progressive side of the political spectrum from whence rent control comes, I find that in practice it has been a disaster for the communities it serves. The focus of this article was largely on inclusionary housing, which I strongly favor, but rent control is, and should be, a different subject altogether. Essentially, it’s a well-meaning idea that is full of unintended consequences. In fact, it is partly because of rent control in San Francisco that I ended up moving to Sacramento.

What ultimately happens in rent-controlled communities is that since landlords are not permitted to raise rents beyond a certain minuscule amount for existing tenants, they charge newcomers far more in initial rent to keep up with maintenance costs. In other words, people are punished financially just for moving in later than others. For example, in the Bronx, landlords couldn’t keep up with costs, which led to large blighted districts of that borough in the 1970s and ’80s. Some desperate and criminally inclined landlords even resorted to burning their buildings to collect the insurance money. Meanwhile, people who had lived at Park Avenue addresses for a long time actually paid less in rent than people in far more modest neighborhoods.

Another unintended consequence of rent control happened in the 1990s in San Francisco, when I lived there. My job at a publishing company afforded me enough money for a modest apartment in that city. But this was at the height of the dot-com boom, so housing was going to be a bit tight. Rent control exacerbated the problem: No one with a rent-controlled apartment could move lest they take a huge financial hit, thus limiting the available housing stock. I went to numerous apartment showings with at least 20 other people trying to get the same place and ended up living in dumps in the Tenderloin, until I finally gave up and moved to Sacramento.

James R. May

Josh has no taste

Re “The music biz is alive and well” by Josh Fernandez (SN&R Night&Day, April 3):

I just finished reading this small article. It’s quite apparent that [Fernandez] has no taste or knowledge of music. I wanted to stop reading it after the second sentence.

Rather than appreciate the fact that he picked up In Rainbows for free, he rips it. The fact that he said it sucked shows he has no real appreciation for music and has no business writing on the subject. In Rainbows is arguably the best Radiohead album yet. But I should know he couldn’t appreciate it when he later mentions downloading Britney Spears.

Please get a writer who is actually knowledgeable about a subject before printing this piece of refuse.

Jesse Papocchia
via e-mail


Re “What’s the greatest nation?” by Jonathan Kiefer (SN&R Sound Advice, April 3):

Wow, no public opinion this year, huh? No wonder the Crest was so empty last year.

I’ve been playing music in this town for 20 years now, and I’ve never understood why the Sammies is the way it is! You need to let the public vote; you need to let bands win more than three times; and you need to stop doing “back room” stuff.

The music is about the audience, not a committee.

Doug Vincent

SN&R responds: We were as inclusive as possible, and the panel was only some 20 percent of the overall nominations’ feedback. If you feel bands were overlooked, give us a call: (916) 498-1234 ext. 1360.

Lost in translation

Re “Too poor to pay to play” (SN&R Letters, March 27):

Mr. Richard Perry complained that the translation called corporations “sociedades.”

In Spanish and other Romance languages, a corporation is called a “sociedad anónima” or SA, a company with limited liability. The English equivalents are Inc. or Ltd.; in German, GmbH. Whether corporations are good or bad depends on one’s politics, but it seems that in this case, the translator just did a literal translation.

Hugh Montgomery

White green

Re “White is the new green” by Sena Christian (SN&R Green House, March 27):

Finally! Somebody noticed!

I am “melanin enriched,” and I tend to find myself the sole soul at pretty much all events. While shaking my head at the people at the vanguard of this movement, I often think “You can be green because you can!”

This sustainability thing is getting out of hand. Somebody once said, “A great movement turns into a great business that turns into a great racket” (they were talking about diversity).

In my view, a green house is a well-built house. A green building is a well-built building.

Charles K. Madison
via e-mail

Green’s not a luxury

Re “White is the new green” by Sena Christian (SN&R’s Green House, March 27):

Wow, Sena Christian notices the green movement is still fairly white, and then goes on to an unfortunate mistake.

According to Christian, “Caring about climate change is a luxury concern. Doing something about it, a privilege.” This is way off. Face it, Sena, buying and consuming lots of stuff (notably fossil energy) are major causes of environmental harm. The rich have much more capacity to do harm than the poor.

Who is greener: upper-middle class suburban commuters driving 60 miles a day in their big 20 mpg vehicles, or those diverse folks I share public transit with? Whose home is greener: the 3,000-square-foot, megacooled, lighted, heated trophy house, or the 900-square-foot apartment?

In terms of energy use, small is beautiful. And the frugal have stronger financial reasons to save even more or reach even greater efficiency, especially if we can all get over initial cost humps or information gaps.

Outside of these really important categories of impact—transportation, housing, heating and cooling—luxury “lifestyle” elements like organic-fiber clothing or groceries mentioned by Christian are nibbles around the fringes. Though the green movement has slowly been becoming a little broader racially over time, the point that it needs more diversity is very valid. So come on in! The earth is in all our care, and threats to it threaten all.

And don’t feel you are somehow excluded if you aren’t rich. Chances are you are already greener than most.

David Wright

Is K.J. credentialed?

Re “The big show” by Cosmo Garvin (SN&R Feature, March 20):

I have been a teacher in the Sacramento City Unified School District for 23 years. I wrote the letter below dated December 3, 2007, and addressed to the board members of the Sacramento City Unified School District. I also sent a copy to the Sacramento Bee, but the newspaper said it was too long and would not print it. I honestly feel it’s because they won’t print anything in favor of Sacramento High School or contrary to Kevin Johnson.

I am sending SN&R the original letter, which only two people responded to, in light of your cover story on city mayoral candidates, including Mr. Johnson:

I recently went to a friend’s father’s funeral in another city. He was a teacher, his daughter is a teacher and many of his extended family and friends are/were also teachers. At the luncheon following the service and burial, many people shared their memories of this kind, influential man, friend and teacher. One woman’s comments really struck a chord with me. She spoke of the “family” and friendships that were formed at the high school where he taught, how his generation exemplified role models for our generation, what a wonderful sense of family was developed there. The reason this resonated so deeply with me is it brought to the forefront of my mind memories of my “family” at Sac High. I taught there for 17 years. I was a student teacher in the science department during the 1984–1985 school year. They saw something in me and posted a position for me, and I was hired the subsequent fall. I cannot speak highly enough of my immediate science department and entire staff; they really nurtured me as a young teacher. They supported me and they cared for me and, more importantly, became my friends and extended family.

My first principal, Thea Stidum, regularly spoke of our “Sac High family.” When she retired, Mary Perez became the head of our family. After her retirement, administrators came in who had no desire to nurture the family we had. They were like many administrators of today: They use their positions as principals as stepping stones to further their careers. Their career goals did not include being the principal of Sac High until retirement. I realize that times have changed, but revolving-door administration heralded the end of Sac High as I knew it. Unfortunately, another piece of fallout from the closure of Sac High was the eventual death of the Visual and Performing Arts Center. When it was an integral part of Sac High, it was extremely successful. Left to forge onward on its own, unfortunately, it did not succeed.

In December of 2002, a special faculty meeting was called. Superintendent Sweeney was there, as well as Kevin Johnson and several members of the school board. We were told that Mr. Johnson was going to invest time, energy and talent into Sac High to “help us.” We were never in such desperate straits as the media was led to believe. They threw this information upon the staff just before the winter holiday break; thus not allowing us sufficient time to form a rebuttal to the proposal thrust upon us. We were an “underperforming school.” But the state had laid out nine steps/levels of sanctions that were to be followed, in order, before shutting us down and giving us away to a charter. Our school board decided to shut us down and skip the first eight steps. One of the steps had already been initiated by Superintendent Sweeney: an independent audit of the school and staff. The board shut us down near the beginning of 2003. The auditors came in late spring. They interviewed every single staff member and their findings backed up what the faculty had already said—our administration needed to be replaced. This was one of the first few steps on that state process for underperforming schools.

In 1999, the state Legislature enacted II/USP, which provides schools in decile ranks 1–5 an opportunity to apply for funding to improve student achievement in exchange for greater accountability. Schools participating in the program received $50,000 in the first year to develop an improvement plan and $200 per student annually to implement the plan for two to three years. In return for the funding, schools agreed to be held accountable for steadily increasing student achievement. According to the law, schools that do not demonstrate “significant growth” as defined by the state Board of Education become subject to state sanctions/intervention at the end of the two- or three-year period. Based on the recommendation of the Public Schools Accountability Act Advisory Committee, the state board has defined “significant growth” as making at least one point of growth on the schoolwide Academic Performance Index.

Unfortunately, Superintendent Sweeney decried the results (though he was the one who hired these auditors) and our school had already been sold out. Meanwhile, Mr. Johnson and his colleagues had insulted and denigrated our staff publicly—we teachers didn’t care about our students, we didn’t know our students’ names, we weren’t challenging them or meeting their needs. After the board shut us down, his minions regularly trolled our hallways recruiting us to teach for his corporation. I honestly don’t know if the pubic realizes that anyone who went to work for St. Hope (the charter schools Mr. Johnson founded that now occupy the Sac High campus) was giving up their tenure in the school district, their retirement benefits and their job security. “It is understood by the school that the SCUSD employee who is offered employment and who chooses to work at Charter High School must resign his/her position as a SCUSD employee and may have no rights of return to the district” (page 26, 2003 Copyright of St. Hope Public Schools). It was especially insulting to be asked to work for them after being told we didn’t know how to do our jobs.

I personally know five teachers who worked at St. Hope Sac High and left after, or even before, one year of employment. Mr. Johnson himself was a principal of one of his small schools last year and even taught classes. To my knowledge, Mr. Johnson does not hold a teaching or administrative credential. The teachers I spoke with shared with me stories of his regular e-mails to staff emphasizing the scores that students had to achieve on the California Standards Tests. Good teaching strategies were not the subject of these e-mail messages. He also expected them to be available 24/seven, whenever he called them. This was emphasized again in a recent editorial in the Sacramento Bee. Teachers were afraid of challenging his opinion, or else they would be gone—and they were. Some were not rehired, some turned in their keys before the end of the term. Many teachers did not hold valid California teaching credentials; at least this was commonplace during the first year of the charter.

Another issue is the underutilization of the campus. We used to average around 2,000 students; they have lost more than 800 students. Any child who does not toe the line exactly as expected either academically or behaviorally is sent to another school in the Sac City Unified School District. Is there any wonder that all of the other schools are overcrowded, their API scores have suffered and that they have higher levels of disciplinary issues to deal with?

What happened to the kids? I had the necessity to visit a former colleague at St. Hope/Sac High in the fall of 2003. The first thing that struck me about the campus was how clean it was, but not from a hygienic perspective. All of the student artwork that had once adorned the hallways had been completely painted over in white. Years of artwork, murals, paintings were completely whitewashed. Trophy cases had disappeared. I have also been informed that the school district paid for all of the science labs to be remodeled. We worked in them for years, asking for improvements. Once we left, then there were no longer any impediments in getting it done. I received a surprise e-mail from a former student last May, and this is what he said with respect to the closure of Sac High:

I followed the shutdown of Sac High through the newspapers, and I know I don’t know the whole story, but the truth is much of what I read made me very angry. I have spent time at a private liberal arts college famous for its education and at one of the top universities in the world, and I have yet to find science educators more dedicated than I had in high school (namely you, Mr. Holtzclaw, and Mr. Vanderwold and his amazing student teacher Ms. Peredo whom I can’t find). I know I am not alone. You never had my older brother, but he also earned a Ph.D. (physics from Cornell), and we often discuss our favorite teachers. The discussion of how schools are failing almost always shorts excellent teachers like you. You prepared me very well for college, a competitive graduate program and a career in science, end of story. (James R. Metcalf, postdoctoral research associate, Department of Earth Sciences , Syracuse University).

In further correspondence, he wrote:

Off hand, I know five Ph.D.s and one J.D. (who is now in a Ph.D. program) from Sac High, myself, my brother Tom (physics at Cornell), [student] (anthropology at U-Chicago), [student] (sociology, now a professor at Texas Christian University), [student] (now at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics), [student] (got his J.D. at USC and is now a political science Ph.D. candidate at UCLA), plus many M.S. and M.A. folks and dozens I probably don’t even know about. All of the folks I know had excellent relationships with supportive faculty at Sac High. Anyone who thinks Sac High couldn’t prepare students for academic success is ignoring and insulting the many excellent students who worked very hard in high school and later.

I will also never forget seeing Kevin Johnson on Oprah last year and hearing him tell a national TV audience that if you don’t want your child going to college, don’t bother coming to our school. He said he was going to help out the kids in Oak Park. Well, not every child needs to go to college (or wants to go to college) to be a productive member of society. We still need skilled tradespeople, and Mr. Johnson hasn’t brought back shop classes. I have also had a few students at Burbank and West Campus who had gone to Sac High St. Hope and left there. Their reasons are consistent with what I had assumed: They were getting good grades but with little to no effort. The data shows that more students have gotten into universities. The problem is grade inflation. The curriculum is not challenging enough, so students get the grades and get into universities. The issue is how many of them will actually complete college? How many will drop out before they finish their freshmen year of college? There are many other ways to help out the people of Oak Park. Granted that Mr. Johnson has helped some people, but it is evident in recent stories in the Bee that his organization hasn’t fulfilled all of his promises for the community of Oak Park.

One thing I know for sure: Mr. Johnson destroyed one of the most important “families” I have known and loved. Thanks for the memories, Kevin. I believe that the district should vote to not renew the charter. And, if for some misguided reason they decide to renew it, they should move it to the campus of American Legion and give Sac High back to the people of Sacramento and to the teachers and students who loved it. Our district cannot afford to build more small high schools when a campus such as Sacramento High School is severely underutilized.

Ema Gluckmann
chemistry instructor
West Campus High School