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Space case: Keri Kresler and the Thomas O’Brien Academy of Science and Technology.

photo:Chris Shields

Space: the Educational Frontier

A dwindling budget has jeopardized a local magnet school’s Space Camp program, but supporters are working hard to keep students aiming for the stars

 

Once, it was among the standard responses for children asked what they wanted to be when they grew up. Less popular than a career as a fireman or policeman, perhaps, but generally more so than that of a guidance counselor or archeologist (despite Indiana Jones’ best efforts), the life of a professional space traveler once inspired children to plan for a future among the stars. Now, faced with a dwindling extracurricular budget and hard decisions about which programs to prioritize, one Albany magnet school is experimenting with some unique fund-raising ideas for their aspiring astronauts.

“If the kids don’t have this opportunity, we may never know how many budding scientists we really have here,” remarked Keri Kresler, a member of the Thomas O’Brien Academy of Science and Technology’s Parent Teacher Association.

For each of the last four years, TOAST has sent 36 fifth- and sixth-grade students to Laval, Québec, to participate in Space Camp Canada, one of several offshoots of the original Space Camp, which was created in 1982 in Huntsville, Ala. In order to make the cut, students are required to submit an essay explaining why they’d like to attend Space Camp and letters of recommendation from both an adult and a fellow student to a committee of parents and teachers.

Those students selected for the three-day visit sleep in pod-style bunks similar to those in the actual space shuttles, experience zero-gravity life and receive a general taste of all things scientific in the world of manned space flights. Upon their return, the students are charged with creating a project capable of sharing some of their Space Camp experiences with the rest of their classmates.

“We don’t think there’s any greater lesson in science and technology than Space Camp,” explained Carrie Ingleston, an assistant teacher at TOAST. According to Ingleston, taking advantage of the nearby camp seemed like a natural step for a school focusing on science and technology.

While both the school (out of magnet-school funds) and the PTA originally shared the cost of the trip—nearly $14,000 for 36 students and six chaperones—funding has grown scarce in recent years. As is often the case among schools faced with funding concerns, the belt around extracurricular activities was one of the first to be tightened. Last year, the Space Camp program was funded almost entirely by the PTA, but the sum of all the group’s fund-raising efforts last year amounted to slightly less than the cost of sending that year’s group of students to Space Camp—leaving little money for other activities.

This year, the group decided to reevaluate the program’s role at the school. With only 36 students able to attend Space Camp, there was concern that the organization’s fund-raising might be better directed toward activities that involve a larger portion of the student body.

Instead, “we decided to try and raise double what we raised last year,” said Kresler. Kresler—a former professional fund-raiser for various agencies around the region—said they are attempting to do their Space Camp fund-raising separately, alongside what they’re doing for other programs, so as to not to take away from any other events that rely on PTA funding. In doing so, said Kresler, they’ve begun entertaining some uncommon ap proaches to the art of wooing donors.

“Catalogues and candy aren’t the only ways to do this,” laughed Kresler, running through the list of movie nights and other activities the group has explored. Kresler recently ar ranged for a book auction to be held this coming Tuesday (March 29) at De John’s, a restaurant on Lark Street in downtown Albany—a dual celebration of the school’s Space Camp aspirations and National Author’s Month, she ex plained. The restaurant’s owner, John DeJohn, donated space and food for the event, and Kresler solicited autographed work from authors—both local and global—to auction off at the event.

With nearly 70 percent of TOAST’s student body qualifying for the free-lunch program, Kresler stressed that PTA members want to make sure that no student gets turned away from Space Camp because of money concerns (whether personal or for the school as a whole). The group of 36 students is scheduled to leave for Space Camp next month, even though less than half of the trip’s cost is accounted for. The PTA will continue its fund-raising through the remainder of the school year.

“We’ve basically accepted that we’re not going to be able to raise all of the money by April,” said Kresler, “but for a lot of these children, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience the things they’ve only read about—and that’s why it’s so important for us.”

—Rick Marshall

rmarshall@metroland.net


What a Week

An F in Economics

The University at Albany recently announced that it would begin a couch-cushion search for funding, thanks to budget shortfalls and low enrollment rates. According to UAlbany officials, cuts totaling more than $1 million need to be made during the next school year. We’re not math majors here, but with recent reports placing the SUNY chancellor’s annual earnings at around $500,000 (including housing and driver) and salaries dropping ever-so-slightly as you work down the hierarchy, the students and faculty affected by these cuts might want to look under the leather, gold-plated couch before they touch the Salvation Army furniture.

Willing to a Point

Italy will be pulling out of Iraq by September, said prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. His country is in an uproar over the shooting by U.S. forces of the Italian intelligence officer who had rescued an Italian journalist who had been held hostage. Italy has the fourth largest contingent in Iraq after the United States, Britain and South Korea. The Netherlands, Ukraine, and Poland, with around 1,500 troops each, are also in the process of reducing their presence in Iraq.

So Much for Vision

By tacking a provision to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge onto a budget bill—thereby preventing a filibuster—Republicans succeeded in passing a measure that Congress has defeated several times in recent years. Though opponents said as much oil could be saved through conservation measures, George W. Bush insisted it was a crucial way to reduce our reliance on foreign imports. Of course, at current consumption rates, the 10.4 billions barrels in the refuge will last us less than one and a half years. Luckily for Bush it won’t start producing until he’s out of office anyway.

Clear Channel on Trial

A jury awarded an independent promoter $90 million in damages after finding that Clear Channel had acted unfairly and uncompetitively in trying to win back the sponsorship of a motorcycle dirt-bike race. The jury did not find Clear Channel guilty of antitrust violations, but The New York Times quoted Andrew Schwartzman, president of the Media Access Project, as saying that case has nonetheless put “blood in the water.”



I want clean dust: Bobbi Chase and her daughter Ananda.

Dangerous Dust Bunnies

Toxic chemicals in your household goods don’t stay there—they end up in your dust

Bobbi Chase is the associate director of the advocacy group Citizens’ Environmental Coalition. She and her husband don’t use pesticides or toxic cleaners in their house, and they buy organic food. They’re very aware of want-ing to create a healthy environment for their 3-month-old daughter. But even the eco-conscious Chase household dust has toxins in it.

A study released Tuesday by the national Coming Clean Coalition, of which CEC is a partner, found that dust samples from seven states, including New York, showed appreciable levels of six classes of chemicals that are known to either be toxic or carcinogenic, or to cause reproductive problems, and yet are still legal and virtually unregulated.

For example, say the studies’ authors, brominated flame retardants, which are used in computers, electronics, mattresses and couches, damage the development of the nervous system. Phthalates, used in vinyl (PVC) items like shower curtains and water pipes, disrupt reproductive systems. And perfluorinated organics, used in nonstick kitchen coatings and stain-proof fabrics and carpets, are potentially carcinogenic and damage organ function.

“Over 90 percent of toxic chemicals that leave factories don’t go out the smokestack or in the river,” said Kathy Curtis, CEC’s director. “They leave in the products. And it would be one thing if they were bound to the products, but they’re not. They come off.”

The dust study was a way to dramatize that last startling fact, and help create momentum for some change. “People have to know there’s a problem before they can demand that they deserve something better,” said Curtis. “Most people think that government is protecting them and chemicals have been tested for safety, and that’s just not the case.”

Is making people not just embarrassed about their dust bunnies, but terrified of them, going to be productive? Curtis said it will, because the report, Sick of Dust, which can be read in full at the Web site www.safe-products.org, and the surrounding campaign are focused on things people can do. (She acknowledged that a precursor report put out last year [“Et Tu, Computer?” FYI, June 24, 2004], which focused on the toxic results of wipes of dust on computers, was less helpful because it had no associated action items.) First, there are shopping changes that can be made to lower the amount of these chemicals in the home. An easy one, said Curtis, is don’t buy things made of PVC. On a broader level, the Web site ranks many major companies according to their commitment and progress toward eliminating toxic chemicals in their products. (Ikea gets high marks. Wal-Mart gets the worst rating.)

But that’s only the first step. Because there is no requirement to label household products, people cannot entirely “buy their way out” on their own, said Curtis. The coalition is also calling for more government regulation of toxic materials, product labeling, and government nontoxic purchase agreements. In December, Buffalo passed legislation phasing out the purchase of products containing many persistent toxic chemicals. A similar measure is pending in New York City; Curtis said she hopes to see it go statewide, which could provide the economies of scale to make the nontoxic alternatives, which do exist, more available and affordable to the public.

Also, CEC and its partners are pushing to have the state actually appoint members to a task force that was approved last year to study the most common form of brominated flame retardants: deca- brominated diphenyl ethers. Two less common forms were phased out in the same legislation, and Curtis said that as long as health and environmental advocates are given a fair say along with industry on the task force, she expects deca-BDEs to be phased out as well.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

maxel-lute@metroland.net


Overheard

overheard: “You know, ‘jew.’ It means like ‘gyp.’ ”

—A young man in a yarmulke in the process of explaining to someone why a friend’s use of the phrase “jewing down” offended him.


Life Is Relative

Inconsistencies in Republicans’ support of life- prolonging measures raises questions about their motives in the Terri Schiavo case

 

While much of the nation’s media in the past few weeks has focused its attention on the fate of Terri Schiavo, the Florida woman who has spent the last 15 years in a vegetative state and recently had her feeding tube removed by court order, recent events in Texas may provide food for thought on both the motives of federal officials and the real issues at stake in the Schiavo case.

In 1999, Texas became the first state to adopt a statute giving medical-care facilities the right to terminate “medically futile” treatments without the patient’s directive to do so and against the wishes of patients’ family members or health-care proxies. The Texas Futile Care Law, described by its authors as a way to prevent the demands of terminal or vegetative patients’ families from diverting equipment, funds and personnel from patients who might benefit more from these services, received broad support from both liberal and conservative groups and was signed into law by then-Gov. George W. Bush. Only recently, however, did the statute receive its first set of tests.

Last week, staff at the Texas Children’s Hospital removed the breathing tube from Sun Hudson, a six-month-old baby born with a fatal form of dwarfism, after a hospital committee declared further treatment inappropriate and Harris County Probate Court Judge William C. McCulloch agreed with the committee’s appraisal. The decision went against the wishes of Wanda Hudson, Sun’s mother, who argued that her son’s body simply needed time to adapt to the genetic condition. While the statute provided Hudson with 10 days to find a facility that would continue the treatment, she was unable to find a facility willing to do so, and her son died shortly after the breathing tube was removed.

Similarly, 68-year-old Spiro Nikolouzos nearly had his breathing tube removed last month by staff at St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital in Houston, after a hospital committee ruled the treatment futile. Although Nikolouzos’ family members were able to find another facility to continue his treatment within the allotted 10 days, they argued that the hospital’s decision was simply a product of Nikolouzos’ waning supply of Medicare funds, and not the ethical judgment described by the facility.

While some cite differing medical conditions in the Hudson and Nikolouzos cases and that of Schiavo (Schiavo can breathe on her own, while the other two were unable to do so), comments by some elected officials paint a confusing picture of the government’s role in such scenarios.

“He’s been trying to kill Terri for four and a half years,” said House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) on a recent episode of ABC News’ Good Morning America. DeLay was referring to the Florida judge who found that Schiavo, in addition to being in a vegetative state that doctors unanimously doubt she will ever emerge from, had also previously made clear her desire not to be kept alive under such conditions.

And many of DeLay’s fellow Republicans, on both the state and national levels of government, have taken a similar stance against the removal of Schiavo’s feeding tube—despite numerous court rulings that affirm the right of Michael Schiavo, Terri’s husband and legal guardian, to request that her life be ended. The Republican-led Congress went so far as to quickly introduce—and pass—legislation that would allow Schiavo’s case to be heard in a federal court. (Sens. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) did not attend the vote.)

White House spokesman Scott McClellan stated that President Bush, who not only signed the 1999 Texas law that allowed hospitals to end life-sustaining treatment, but also presided over the execution of more than 150 prisoners (many of them mentally disabled) during his time as governor of Texas, approved the legislation from Congress because he “stands on the side of defending life.”

The apparent contradictions in elected officials’ positions regarding Terri Schiavo’s case and those of Sun Hudson and Spiro Nikolouzos have created intense speculation about elected officials’ true motivations. Recently, a set of talking points circulated among Senate Republicans urging support for the legislation that passed last week because the party’s “pro-life base will be excited” and describing the Schiavo case as “a great political issue.” The document has only fueled public criticism of the current administration’s sudden interest in Schiavo’s case.

“United States citizens, you better start speaking up,” advised Michael Schiavo in a recent interview, “because someday these people are going to trample into your personal private, private affairs, too.”

—Rick Marshall

rmarshall@metroland.net


Loose Ends

On Monday (March 21) the Albany Common Council voted to designate the Park South neighborhood [“What Would You Do?,” Newsfront, May 27, 2004] as an Urban Renewal Zone, which allows the city to use powers of eminent domain if it deems it necessary (each use would require a separate authorization by the council). The next step will be choosing a developer. Albany Medical Center has been invited to sit in on the choosing process. Why just them? “They own two blocks of the nine-block area,” said Albany planning commissioner Lori Harris. “We need to be in concert with them.”



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