May 31, 2008

Sphere Madness makes its public debut

Out of the Park, by Daun Johnson, Kim Nelson
and Crystal Johnson

It's not often you go to a party at Wingspread with Elvis, Marilyn Monroe and James Dean ... and they're not the guests of honor. Andy Griffith was in attendance too (well, his Mayberry Sheriff's car was there, although I never ran into him), but he wasn't the guest of honor either.

Rather, the stars of the party Saturday night were the 75 objects that make up Sphere Madness, the Downtown Racine Corporation's summer sidewalk art project, which will add to the ambiance of Main and Sixth Street starting on Monday when they go on display downtown.

Saturday night was their official unveiling -- at a '50s sock hop and outdoor garden party called Goodness Gracious, Great Balls of Art! Spread out around the lawn, the 75 spheres made an impressive debut. There were dragons, a great turtle, the expanding universe, a ball of yarn, a king's chess table, a 200-mph snail. There was an owl, penguins, fish, downtown attractions, a dodo driving a bulldozer. There were flowers, a princess, the Little Prince, a baseball-playing cow.

The variety was amazing. Under one of the tents was a mouth-watering dessert table with all the fixin's of the best ice cream sundae ever ... topped by a huge scoop of ice cream. Yup, it was one of the spheres, although it was so realistic one almost had to touch it to prove it wasn't really ice cream.

Artists mingled with sponsors, explaining the fine points of their creation. The most-asked question I overheard was, "How can you bear to part with it?" How indeed? At the end of summer, the spheres will be auctioned off -- and no doubt some of the artists will bid to retrieve their creations.

Wandering Eye by Rick Beyer and Fred DacQuisto

One Scoop or Two? by Laura Covelli and Eric Dahlke

Raylene by Raymond School of Art Club
and Wendy Grueneberg

Crystal Dragon by Joyce Medina

All A-Round Racine by Alyson Eisch
and Julian Thomas Elementary Students

Motion Pictures - A Universal Appeal by Craig Welch

Artist Robert Andersen, left, explains his Toulous-Laugoose Egg

Starry Night with its creator, Sherri Shaver

Dododozer by Bill Reid

Elvis (a k a John Van Thiel) entertains a fan

Marilyn Monroe and James Dean, together at last
(Amy Peckman and Danny Neumann)

Gardeners make quick work of plant sale goodies

Hours before the sale began -- at 6:30 a.m., in fact -- the first early birds were in line.

No, this wasn't the line for Rolling Stones concert tickets; rather, it was the Potpourri Garden Club's annual plant sale in the parking lot of Sam's Club. The enthusiasm was just as great, and the line stretched far beyond the tables laden with thousands of bright green locally-grown perennials, shrubs and ground cover.

The sale started at 9:30. If you're home reading this now, you're too late. Most of the best plants -- bargain-priced from $1 and up -- were gone by 11:30, carted off in big armloads by gardeners young and old. For the rest of you, there's always next year. The club uses the funds it raises for beautification projects throughout the community.

May 30, 2008

GOP straw poll suggests Ryan for U.S. Senate

Getting tired of all the talk about Paul Ryan as a potential Vice Presidential candidate?

Well, how about Paul Ryan as a U.S. Senate candidate!

Racine County Republicans conducted a straw poll at Burlington's Chocolate Fest last weekend, seeking candidates for the 2010 Governor and U.S. Senate primaries. Not surprisingly in a county he already represents in Congress, Ryan led the Senate poll, with 68% of the vote. Former Congressman Mark Green came in second with 26%. The Democratic opponent in 2010, presumably, would be Sen. Russ Feingold, who will be completing his third term that year.

In the Republicans' gubernatorial straw poll for 2010, voters again stuck with the familiar: Scott Walker, Milwaukee County Executive, got 58% of the vote, easily beating former governor Tommy Thompson, who polled 12% and former Congressman Mark Neumann with 10%.

The party noted, "Although much focus is on the 2008 Presidential elections, it’s never too early to start thinking about who will be our Governor and U.S. Senator come 2010." Governor and Senate candidates, that is.

Segway and trolley give Downtown streets a new look

Yes, this was Racine's Downtown Friday afternoon -- normal traffic making way for the summer trolley and the Downtown Racine Corporation's new Segway people transporter.

Sure gives the street and sidewalk a different look!

Steering the Segway down the sidewalk is Sarah Dyer, 20, in her second week as a Downtown Ambassador. Sarah is a senior at UW-Madison, an English major hoping to be a teacher someday. A Park High graduate, she sought out an Ambassador position after hearing about it from her cousin who was one a couple of years ago.

She sees the job as providing information about downtown to anyone who asks: telling them where and when events are scheduled, for example. And also patrolling the city's parking lots and structures, making sure cars are safe.

Don't get the idea being a Downtown Ambassador is all Segwaying up and down Main Street: Sarah told me her pedometer clocked her walking six miles this morning traversing the same route on foot.

Meanwhile, on the highway part of the street, Downtown's two summer trolleys began driving their route this week. The trolleys, managed by the Belle Urban Bus system, operate downtown between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

One trolley runs Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. On Friday and Saturday, the second provides Pub and Grub service downtown from 4 p.m. to midnight. The fare at all times is 25 cents per ride. Routes cover restaurants, pubs, the art district, the library, museums and other downtown attractions. The Friday and Saturday evening pub and grub route goes to 15 downtown restaurants, numerous pubs and taverns and two theaters. The trolleys' route and schedule is HERE.

If you want a ride, just hail the trolley from anywhere downtown.

Our earlier story about how Downtown got its Segway is HERE.

North Beach: A lesson for beaches everywhere

Julie Kinzelman at North Beach

Think back 10 years, when gasoline cost less than $2 a gallon, the stock market was booming and North Beach was frequently closed due to harmful bacteria. Day after hot summer day. "Health Hazard: Do Not Swim" the sign said in at least two languages.

Well, that was then. "Credit" whomever you like for what's happened to gas and stock prices, but much of the credit for North Beach's renaissance goes to Julie Kinzelman.

She was the woman of the hour Friday morning ("Racine has two treasures: kringle and Kinzelman," said Benjamin Grumbles, Assistant Administrator, office of Water, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency), as the federal government handed an over-sized check to the state (think of those Lottery checks you've never won) , along with the unveiling of a "cool tool" that will be used nationwide to clean up beaches everywhere.

All because of work that Julie Kinzelman pioneered here. It all seems so basic now. Find out what the sources of beach pollution are and fix them. But 10 years ago, everybody pointed to seagulls as the culprit -- and how do you get rid of them? Well, it turns out -- thanks to Kinzelman's careful monitoring of beach pollution sources -- that the gulls were only part of the problem, maybe half of it, maybe a bit more or less. She also pinpointed pollution coming from storm water runoff (as well as a few errant septic systems.)

And then she followed up with remedial efforts: diversion of the storm water to a newly constructed wetlands area; beach grooming that helps the sand dry more quickly, killing the bacteria already there; and efforts to reduce the gull visitors: more people on the beach is a start, and berms soon to be constructed along the boardwalk will also help. The result: Beaches closed only about 5% of the summer.

Kinzelman, a Racine native, has worked for the city's Department of Health for 18 years. She's now Dr. Kinzelman, having earned a Ph.D in public health and microbiology from the University of Surrey, England, in 2003. Her thesis topic: North Beach.

Big check; big smiles: Ambs, left; Kovalick, right

Friday's ceremony -- scheduled to be held at the North Beach Oasis but moved indoors to keep the 50 or so officials dry in case of rain (that never came) -- was a check-passing bit of governmental theater: a three-foot wide, non-negotiable check for $222,400 from EPA to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, signifying the state's usual share of EPA's annual $10 million largesse for beaches. Amid flashing cameras, Walter Kovalick, Acting Deputy Regional Administrator, U.S. EPA, Region 5, handed it over to Todd Ambs, Water Administrator, Wisconsin Dept. of Natural Resources. Big smiles and handshakes all around.

But the more important announcement was the unveiling of the "Great Lakes Beach Sanitary Survey Tool" designed to help beach managers everywhere identify sources of bacterial contamination so they can be addressed. Great Lakes beaches pilot-testing the survey last summer were open 95% of the summer.

David Ullrich, executive director of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative, called North Beach "the Malibu of the Midwest," and nobody disagreed or snickered. He said Kinzelman's "marvelous work" is an influence throughout the Great Lakes.

City Council President David Maack, filling in for Mayor Gary Becker, reminded those present -- aldermen, County Executive Bill McReynolds, State Sen. John Lehman, Reps. Bob Turner and Cory Mason among others -- that "it wasn't so long ago that North Beach was struggling... but we've become an example of how to get things done." The city's effort, costing about $750,000, was assisted by citizen volunteers, the SCJohnson Foundation, Sustainable Racine, the Root Pike Watershed Initiative, Wisconsin DNR among others.

In detailing the new beach sanitary survey tool, Grumbles said "it is a local priority and also a national priority to keep the beaches healthy, so the only things you catch at the beach are sun and waves." He gave special kudos to the City of Racine for helping to develop the tool. "What you're doing here is all making a difference. North Beach is a model for the rest of the country."

Ambs, of the Wisconsin DNR, said this has been a great week for the Great Lakes, starting with the signing of the Great Lakes Compact and ending with the receipt of EPA's check and the distribution of the survey tool. "It's hard to know where you're going if you don't know where you've been," he said.

For more information, try these links:

Great Lakes Beach Sanitary Survey Tool

EPA's Beach Watch

Latest Wisconsin beach conditions

Unified's fifth-graders show improvement over past three years

More students at Unified's elementary schools are passing reading tests, according to a RacinePost analysis.

Using data supplied by Unified, RacinePost tracked the progress of reading scores for students who were third-graders in 2005. Over three years, 18 of Unified's 21 schools increased the percentage of students who passed the state's standardized reading test.

In other words, a third-grader in 2005 was more likely to pass the state's WKCE reading test when they were a fifth-grader in 2007.

Click here to see a spreadsheet of RacinePost's analysis.

Third-graders in 2005 at Jerstad-Agerholm Elementary showed the greatest improvement in the district. The class saw its number of students passing the state test jump from 59 percent in 2005 to 88 percent in 2007.

Janes Elementary's 2005 class of third-graders increased its test scores from 43 percent in 2005 to 68 percent in 2007.

Red Apple, Roosevelt and West Ridge also saw a double-digit increase in the number of third-graders in 2005 who passed the reading test as fifth-graders in 2007.

Following a class of students through a school helps isolate reading programs at the school. For example, the improvements at Jerstad and Janes suggest that the school is doing something right to increase the number of students passing the state's WKCE reading test.

At the same time, it could isolate problems. Eighteen percent fewer third-graders in 2005 at Goodland and Mitchell elementaries passed the reading test as fifth-graders in 2007.

Positive or negative increases in school performance may be attributed to outside factors, such as shifts in student enrollment. If more students who are good at reading shift from one school to another, then it could sway the tests.

But if Unified is looking for teachers who seem to be reaching students and helping them excel at reading, the district may want to start looking at the schools that are showing improvement.

Conversely, school's with precipitous drop offs in test scores probably need to be studied and, possibly, reconfigured.

Wading through Unified's test data

Racine Unified underwent its annual exercise in self-flagellation on Thursday by releasing its scores on the state standardized tests called the WKCEs. It's always bad news for Unified, usually greeted with headlines like "Unified continues to struggle on state tests."

It's pretty clear our schools score lower on standardized tests compared to other districts throughout the state. Poverty rates largely explain the low scores, though staff cuts, aging schools, an inflexible teacher's union, and a surly malaise when it comes to public education in our community are also culprits. And, no doubt, families and students are to blame.

So, now that we've blamed everyone for our so-labeled failing schools (that list comes out next month), what's really going on? I have no idea - and I suspect all of the combined PhD's in Unified have no idea, either.

Here's why: No one can speak with any sort of clarity or even understanding of the results. Click the link above and read the JT's story on the results. It makes no sense, and I don't think it's bad writing or reporting. Here are the materials, materials, materials Unified gave out explaining the results.

This is the most revealing line (emphasis added):
All buildings at a variety of grade levels, subgroup populations, and other indicators
continue to have performance issues related to WKCE that appear to be somewhat
While I suppose the candor is commendable, attributing test scores to "random" factors does little to instill confidence in the district. District officials have had access to the scores since March. In all that time the couldn't come up with some better than "somewhat random"?

But enough of that. Unified's problems run deeper than how to spin test results (though the could have done a lot better at the spinning). The problem I have the WKCEs is that they're hard (if not impossible) to read. They shift standards every couple of years so past years aren't comparable. They throw around jargon that experts understand, but mean nothing to the public. And, they divorce the results from the actual schools, teachers and students who are taking the tests and teaching the lessons.

Here's one small example. Looking at the numbers this morning, I realized that the scores are reported across grades for each school. For example, Julian Thomas' scores are reported in a chart that lists how students in 3rd-5th grade did on reading tests in 2007.

That doesn't make sense. You can't compare the results from third grade to the results from fourth grade. It's different students, different teachers and different subjects.

What I wanted to know was how students are doing as they progress through the district's reading programs. How did third-graders in 2005 do when they moved to fourth grade in 2006 and fifth grade in 2007? If they did better, that's a good sign that teachers are engaging students and catching up more students to their reading level. If the scores go down, then perhaps it isolates where there may be problems with a teacher or program. For example, if 85 percent of third-graders at a particular school pass the test in 2005, but only 60 percent pass the test when they move to fourth grade, then maybe there's something wrong in fourth grade.

I think that's what Unified was getting at with their "cohort" analysis, but I didn't have the time or brain power to figure it out. So I came up with my own analysis. I re-jiggered the numbers this morning and came up with a spreadsheet that tracks the reading test scores of third-graders in 2005 as they progressed to fifth grade in 2007.

Read the results of the study here.

May 29, 2008

More jobs and better workers: Now Racine County has a plan

Racine County's long-awaited Workforce Development Strategy report aimed at lowering unemployment and improving the quality and skill levels of our work force was released Thursday. The report iss called "Higher Expectations," and there are plenty to go around.

It is 62 pages of vision, challenges, strategies and tactics -- offset by hope-deadening statistics detailing the long way we have to climb.

Workforce development in the county is at a "crucial crossroads," the report states, listing some of the county's critical concerns:
--Even though manufacturing employment has declined, there is a shortage of skilled employees; dislocated workers are "poorly prepared for anything other than lower-wage jobs;" even entry-level jobs go begging because applicants can't pass drug or background checks or lack "soft skills, such as motivation, punctuality and attendance."

--Too many students drop out of school (only 77% of the county's ninth graders, and 71% of the city's, finish high school in four years); and a diploma "may not signify either 12th grade competence or employability."

--Too many residents view the community in negative terms, "which impacts employee recruitment and retention."

Despite all that bad news -- and there was more (crime statistics, out-migration, unflattering comparisons with Kenosha and Waukesha Counties) -- the report issued a call to action: six "core challenges ... to ensure the county prepares a world-class competitive workforce that will fill available jobs and reduced unemployment and poverty." There's not a quick fix or easy answer in the bunch. They are:
--Raise standards and expectations for public education.
--Support stronger, more financially stable families.
--Create jobs in communities with concentrations of unemployed workers.
--Enhance workforce transportation alternatives.
--Improve job seeker information about opportunities in new and expanding businesses.
--Communicate a more positive community image.
Each of these challenges has been assigned to a different "convener," like the County Executive, the United Way, the Racine County Economic Development Corporation, the Workforce Development Center.

There is a strategic plan for each, with specific challenges listed, goals, strategies, tactics and "outcome metrics" to measure progress. For example, the challenge of creating jobs in communities with concentrations of unemployed workers has as its goal: to create an average of 200 new jobs annually "through business attraction and existing business growth programs" between 2009 and 2014. How? By redeveloping vacant land and underutilized manufacturing facilities, creating new business parks, creating business development incentive programs like low-interest loan funds and micro-lending, and expand ties between the county's minority companies and businesses and governments.

The transportation challenge -- fewer than 1,300 city and county residents use public transportation regularly to commute to work -- seeks to provide alternative transportation options "that more clearly link underutilized workers with employment and educational opportunities." No, KRM isn't mentioned; this is more a Belle Urban System challenge, although it also calls for the recommendation of "possible new transit services ... between Racine County and other counties."

The sixth challenge -- communicating a more positive community image -- seeks a 3% increase by 2014 of residents with a positive community image of Racine County. How? "Hire a public relations professional to identify key target audience and relevant messages..." and "identify and align key media partners required (including web-based media, print media throughout the region from Northern Illinois to Madison, public television and radio) ... to communicate positive news stories affecting Racine County and providing perspectives on other news events."

Want to read the whole report? You'll find it HERE.

There's also a six-minute video introducing the plan, which was played at the Racine County Economic Development Corporation's 25th Anniversary celebration Thursday night at the Marriott. You'll find the video online HERE.

The steering committee that put the plan together was chaired by Michael Batten, Chairman, President and CEO of Twin Disc, Inc. Others on the committee were:
 Bryan Albrecht, President, Gateway Technical College
 Gary Becker, Mayor, City of Racine
 Roger Caron, President, Racine Area Manufacturers and Commerce
 Debra Jossart, Director, Racine County Human Services Department
 Gordon Kacala, Executive Director, Racine County Economic Development
 William L. McReynolds, Racine County Executive
 Jeff Neubauer, Chief Executive Officer, Kranz, Inc.
 Alice Oliver, Manager, Workforce Development Center
 John Rote, Vice President, Office of the Chairman, S.C. Johnson & Son, Inc.
 Marguerite Vanden Wyngaard, Chief Academic Officer, Racine Unified Schools

May 28, 2008

UPDATE: City hires Debbi Embry as its new grant facilitator

UPDATE: Embry's salary will be $58,000 plus standard city benefits. Her salary will be significantly less than the $90,000 originally talked about in the budget for the position.

ORIGINAL POST: The city hired Debbi Embry, former executive director of the Racine YWCA, as its new grant facilitator.

Embry will start in her job , a new position with the city, on June 9. She was one of 43 applicants for the new position, and selected after preliminary interviews with seven candidates and a second round of interviews with three candidates.

“She had a presence about her, spoke with confidence, knowledge base about grants that was impressive,” said City Administrator Ben Hughes, who will supervise Embry as an employee of the mayor’s office.

A key part of Embry’s job will be to work with the city’s 13 departments to secure grants from state, federal and private nonprofit funding sources, Hughes said.

While city department heads have done a good job at securing state and federal dollars, they haven’t done a good job at work with private foundations like the Joyce Foundation or the Ford Foundation, Hughes said.

“The basic reason is our department heads just don’t have the time to do that,” Hughes said about pursuing private grants. “There’s not enough hours in the day.”

In addition to writing grants, Embry also will be responsible for following up with existing grants to make sure the money is being spent effectively, and that proper paperwork is filed for multi-year grants.

Embry will be expected to generate enough revenue to cover her $90,000 salary and benefits, plus additional money to run city government, Hughes said.

Examples of areas where new grant money may be available include infant mortality programs, park maintenance and the city’s efforts to clean up the Root River and its public beaches.

Embry was removed as head of the YWCA on Dec. 5 as part of sweeping changes to the organization, including the sale of its building on College Avenue.

Embry is the daughter of legendary NBA star Wayne Embry of the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks.

Lehman elected Senate Democratic Caucus chair

Sen. John Lehman's released this statement today:
Madison – By a unanimous vote today, Senate Democrats elected Senator John Lehman of Racine as Caucus Chair. Lehman will replace Senator Roger Breske who is leaving the legislature to become state Commissioner of Railroads.

The primary duties of the caucus chair are to schedule and preside over meetings of the Senate Democrats.

Lehman said, “I’m honored to have earned the trust of my fellow Democratic Senators and to be selected as their caucus chair. Each one of us comes to Madison to represent the interests of our diverse constituents. My job as caucus chair is to help make sure that each Democratic Senator, on behalf of the people they represent, has the opportunity to be heard.”

In addition to his new role as Democratic Caucus Chair Lehman continues to serve on the Joint Committee on Finance, Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules, Senate Committee on Economic Development, Senate Committee on Labor, Elections and Urban Affairs and chair of the Senate Education Committee.

May 27, 2008

Spheres are Here!

I'll admit it, I was a bit skeptical about this year's Downtown art project. Spheres? What's anyone going to do with a sphere? Well, count me officially wrong, wrong, wrong. Artists dropped off their finished spheres at Downtown Racine Corp, and they're amazing (maybe the best yet!).

Below are some initial pix. Thanks to DRC for letting us get a sneak peak at the creations!

13-year-old Holly Howe (she's actually 12, but her birthday is on Saturday) stands to the left of the turtle she created with 13-year-old Kayla Clair. Both Holly and Kayla are students at Mahone Middle School, where their art teacher, Laura Covelli (who's pushing the turtle), got them started on the turtle. While Covelli helped a little, Holly and Kayla did nearly all of the work, including finding the materials needed to make their reptilian creation.

Here's the finished project. Covelli lives in Racine and is a veteran of the Downtown art projects. She's made various creations in past summer, and made two more (one with her husband) for this year's exhibit.

Here's a collection of the spheres dropped off on Tuesday. They'll hit the streets next Monday, after taking part in an artist appreciation dinner and fundraiser at Windspread on Saturday.

More spheres!

And still more!

And more!

Craig Aude, an employee with DRC, helps roll in a planter created by Sally Orth and Terry Leopold.

Keith Nelson unstraps a speedy snail from his truck.
Kim Nelson, who created the snail, helps unload the art work.

A very cute Scrubbing Bubble sphere (I bet SCJ bids big on this one at the auction!)

The owl sphere is striking!

Aude and volunteer Richard Harris work on attaching wheel bases to the spheres. That way, store owners can roll the spheres inside at night, protecting them from the elements and ne-er-do-wells.

The baseball cow is another great piece from Kim Nelson.

Careful setting down that work of art!