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City Reporter



Bad Report Card

Facing low grades, school board ponders function of optional schools.

By Mary Cashiola

Desperate times call for desperate measures. That seems to be the adage plaguing the Memphis City Schools system these days.

After state board of education member Avron Fogelman came out with a controversial plan last week to get Memphis City Schools off the low-performing-schools list, one local board commissioner raised a question Monday night that may be just as controversial.

"What is the true purpose of optional schools?" asked Commissioner Lee Brown.

When the state report cards were released last week, the city district still rated as poorly as last year. It was then that Fogelman proposed lowering the standards for the system. But Brown asked that the board look at another factor.

"Why are optional schools provided with additional resources?" he asked, adding, "if all schools provide quality education, is there still a need for the optional- school program?" and "What is the real impact of the optional-school program?"

Optional schools are designed to give parents the opportunity to select an education program that fits their child's special needs or talents. To enroll in one of the 29 schools, which feature such programs as engineering, creative and performing arts, and aviation, students have to complete various admission requirements. Some of the schools require an entrance exam and good grades, but in others enrollment is based solely upon conduct and attendance.

Although Brown said he liked the program when his child went to an optional school, he wondered if the system wasn't setting non-optional schools up to be included on the state list. By picking out a school's highest-achieving students to go to optional schools, Brown said the system would naturally be unbalanced.

"I know these are questions you're not supposed to ask, but I'm asking them," he said.

The board also unanimously rejected Fogelman's proposal to lower standards for the district. In a resolution submitted by Commissioner Lora Jobe, the board urged the state board to maintain uniform standards for all students in the state.

"In light of the test scores and in light of the publicity, it looks like we've fallen on some hard times," said Jobe. "The worst thing we can do is demand less or expect less of our students."

The rest of the board agreed.

Hotline Help

AIDS center needs volunteers.

By Janel Davis

AIDS CARE, a program established to provide non-medical services to the HIV/AIDS community, needs volunteer operators for its 24-hour, seven-days-a-week crisis line.

Mary Foehr, executive director of Family Services of the Mid-South, expects this holiday season to be busy.

"Our peak period goes through Christmas. We're looking for a major increase in call volume," she says. "This year has been rough on a lot of people."

The crisis line is an anonymous and confidential line that provides general information on HIV/AIDS, testing, and available community resources. A supervisor manages seven volunteers, who work two six- to eight-hour shifts each month.

Volunteers participate in mandatory training by the University of Tennessee Department of Psychiatry, undergo six months of supervisory phone operation, and must be at least 18 years of age.

The HIV/AIDS line is part of an initial five-month grant awarded in October to Family Services and Friends For Life Corporation by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. For the five-month period $60,000 was designated for funding the phone line. A one-year renewal grant has been submitted for activation April 1st. If approved, the HIV/AIDS line will receive $82,000.

In addition to the HIV/AIDS line, the Family Services Crisis Center operates an additional crisis hotline which handles calls ranging from psychiatric disorders, housing problems, and food assistance. The center received 30,000 calls last year, of which 254 were active suicide calls.

The crisis line is 901-271-5008. Anyone interested in becoming a volunteer should call 901-274-7477.

Problems With the Palace

New club on Front Street is deemed an "inappropriate fit."

By Rebekah Gleaves

Von Rico Webber says he's learning that owning a nightclub doesn't mean you'll be invited to join the club downtown.

"If I'm not in their loop, they don't want me down there," says Webber, speaking of the Beale Street Merchants Association and the Center City Commission. "All I want to do is get my piece of the pie."

Webber appeared before the Alcoholic Beverage Commission two weeks ago to get a beer permit for the River Palace Nightclub & Restaurant, which he plans to open in February. The club, to be located at 287 Front Street in the former George's Disco Incorporated (GDI) location, will feature two dance floors, two deejays, VIP Rooms, a champagne and martini bar, live entertainment, and a full kitchen with a mostly soul-food menu.

But when he appeared before the Center City Commission, Webber learned that many of his downtown neighbors were anything but welcoming. For the first time ever, CCC president Jeff Sanford spoke against an applicant, asking the commission to deny Webber's permit request.

When contacted later, Sanford told the Flyer that his reason for opposing Webber's application was that he didn't think the type of club Webber wanted to open was appropriate in that location.

"Beale Street is a designated entertainment district. We're certainly not opposed to entertainment in the downtown area. We encourage it. But we think this particular neighborhood is an inappropriate fit for this particular club," says Sanford.

At the permit hearing, Sanford told the commission that Webber was rumored to have been an owner of Club 2001 -- a venue where the beer license was ultimately revoked and several shootings had occurred.

Like Sanford, developer John Elkington also signed a card to speak in opposition to River Palace. Elkington, who is on the Center City Commission's board of directors and whose Performa Entertainment group manages many of the nightclubs on Beale Street, did not speak before the commission but told the Flyer that his concerns were related to the "type of business" and the "proprietor."

"The man who will be the proprietor had problems with cruising and shootings at the nightclub he owned in Whitehaven," says Elkington, but he did not know the name of the club in Whitehaven.

Webber, however, insists that he is being slandered by the Center City Commission and the Beale Street group. He says that they must be confusing him with someone else because he has never owned any part of any nightclub and has never had any type of felony conviction.

Both Sanford and Elkington also cite problems with traffic and parking and with the club's incompatibility with the increasingly residential nature of the neighborhood.

Webber is quick to counter those claims by saying that the location is only two blocks from Beale Street and less than a block from another nightclub, N'Cognito. He also notes that much of downtown's traffic and parking problems stem from Beale Street and that other clubs, like Earnestine & Hazel's and Raiford's, operate successfully in other downtown neighborhoods that are not entertainment districts.

"In any downtown area you're going to have problems with parking," he says, "but I don't think we'll have any more problems than any other business."

He says that neither Elkington nor Sanford -- nor anyone else opposing his club -- has spoken with him and he feels that all of this is an attempt to prevent nightclubs from opening off Beale Street.

"They don't know anything about me, but they came down there just to crush me," he says.

In the end, Webber was granted the beer permit -- a decision that Sanford said the Center City Commission had planned to appeal. However, Sanford now says that they will "just watch the development and hope the developer of the property was listening to our concerns."

Dollar Tree Discrimination

Holding hands leads to trouble.

Rumi Tominaga and partner Gabrielle DuBois had already been in the Dollar Tree once that day. It was about a week or so before Halloween and the two bought candy at the discount store in Poplar Plaza. But on their return trip, they left the place empty-handed.

While waiting in line to pay for their purchases, one of the managers came over the loudspeaker and asked the cashier to pick up the phone. The next thing DuBois and Tominaga knew, they were being asked to stop their public displays of affection or leave. The two women -- who have been together for about three years --had been holding hands.

"We were shocked, obviously," says DuBois. They left the store, but after sitting in their car for a few minutes, Tominaga went back inside.

"We felt like we were sitting in the back of the bus," says Tominaga, "We said, 'We can't let it go at that.'"

Tominaga found the manager helping another customer and asked why she and DuBois had been kicked out of the store.

"All she would do is put her hand in my face and her back to me and say, 'That was disrespectful,'" says Tominaga.

She then asked if any other couple would have been asked to leave for holding hands or if there was a policy against public displays of affection at the store. Tominaga was told, yet again, only that it was disrespectful.

"The customer she was helping was a little taken aback," says Tominaga, "but [the manager] kind of said something to her and they pretty much laughed me out of the store."

On returning home, DuBois and Tominaga called the store's headquarters and the ACLU. Tominaga says the store's representatives were apologetic and told her they would take care of the problem. But when the Flyer contacted the Virginia-based company, employee relations manager Patricia Doss said that she had no record of the complaint. However, one of her employees was identified as having taken the call.

After finding out that someone had indeed contacted her office about the matter, Doss said she reviewed the situation and took statements from the involved parties but would not comment further. Tominaga was told the store has no policy on public displays of affection; Doss would also not comment on the store's policies.

The ACLU also told the couple there was basically nothing they could do; because there are no state or federal laws protecting sexual orientation, there is little recourse for anyone alleging discrimination based upon it.

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