Finding the good news

From 2006: Good news from unlikely sources

If it feels like good news is hard to come by these days, that's because it is. It's not on the front pages and it's not on TV. In a quest for something positive, Sunday Morning correspondent Tracy Smith went to the Library of Congress, which has the largest collection of small-town newspapers.

The first story she found comes from an unlikely source: Dominion Power Company's Chesterfield coal-burning power plant in Chester, Va.

Tom Farrell was running the plant in 1998 when he decided to get some fresh air.

"I knew more in my brain it was the right thing to do," he said. "It was inevitable that we were gonna clean these plants up."

The E.P.A. had warned that coal-fired power companies had to decrease the amount of pollutants released into the air or face penalties. Other companies fought it, but not Dominion; the company voluntarily made changes before the E.P.A. made it. Farrell said the company's lawyers wanted to fight the regulations, but he convinced them that complying might be a better idea.

"We all live here," he said. "We all have families. We all have kids. It was the right thing to do for our state and our neighbors."

Dominion started installing pollution-control equipment throughout its system. Its Chesterfield plant is still being updated but air quality improvements are already measurable.

"We're not done yet," Farrell said. "It'll be a lot better. It'll be down overall, 90 percent reduction all the way across our system and that'll be by the end of this decade."

Virginia's Department of Environmental Quality says the air quality in Richmond has improved by 40 percent, in large part because of Dominion's changes. And the city is poised to be taken off the E.P.A.'s list of areas with the highest smog levels.

"These things work," Farrell said. "I mean, if you put in pollution control equipment, you can remove the nitrogen oxides, you can remove the sulfur dioxides, and you can remove the mercury. They're expensive but they work."

Total cost for the project was $1.6 billion, but Farrell says Dominion's stockholders are breathing easier. Cleaning up is actually costing less than fighting the E.P.A. Customers are paying the same they were paying in 1998, Farrell said.

"Well, nice companies finish first," Farrell said. "There's more coal in the United States than Saudi Arabia has oil. The majority of electricity comes out of coal today and it's gonna be that way for a long time. We can clean it up. We can make it better."

The Stanton Elementary School in North Philadelphia is also spreading some good news even though, years ago, it was so troubled it became the subject of the Academy Award-winning documentary, "I Am a Promise." Today, some of Stanton's fifth and sixth graders still remember what it was like.

"Food fights, fist fights, arguments with teachers, kids hitting the teachers actually, hurting the teachers. It was just like a school, no, a horror movie," said a student at Stanton named Hanif.

Since then, things have changed a lot and these days the school is known around the neighborhood for the education it's providing and the accolades for academic excellence it's receiving.

In the past three years, changes have been dramatic: reading and math proficiency levels jumped -- so much so that the tests were scrutinized and double-checked in 2004. By 2005, there was no denying the progress. And now there's something else undeniable too: Students are proud of themselves and actually like school.

"Me and my friend Justin are very smart gentlemen," Hanif said.

"I get As and Bs," said a Stanton student named Kiana.

"I'm loving it right now and the report card is coming out so I know I'm getting a lot of stuff for Christmas," Justin said.

The kids give credit to Barbara Adderley, their principal for five years.

"I love it. I love my job," she said. "They're not where they should be. So, we have to work harder to get a 100 percent for all the children in both areas, in reading and in math, and we're moving into science. I'm accountable."

For her part, Adderley says it is a group effort, involving support from the state and city, as well as from parents and teachers. But the key, she says, is something more academic.

"The data. We keep the data in front of us at all times," she said. "Data is the key."

Some of that data, in the form of various test scores, adorn the hallways and class rooms, so students can gauge their own progress ... and also check-out how the other guy is doing.

"I like seeing our scores up on the wall so like we can see where we at," Mykera, a student at the school, said.

"The scores motivate you to get where you're supposed to be so by the end of the year you're where you're supposed to be, or past," Justin said.

Adderley says different people will attribute her students' successes to various influences, but she says the lesson is clear and always the same:

"I believe that all children can learn at high levels. And I do mean that," she said. "All of them with no exceptions."

The kids couldn't agree more.

"There isn't a doubt. No ifs ands or buts about it, I am going to go to college," Justin said. "I am going to get my Masters degree."

"I wanna go either to Temple, Yale or Princeton," Stanton student Deanna, said.

"We won't give up," Hanif said. "We're gonna persevere and we're gonna follow our dreams."

Meanwhile, in Long Island, New York, a group of elderly men in their 80s and 90s has been meeting at the Shelter Rock Tennis Club most everyday for about seven years. They have known each other for 47 years. The group calls themselves the Romeos for "Retired Old Men Eating Out."

During lunch, they tease each other with what they call zingers. The truth is, the Romeos' antics may be a recipe-for-success when it comes to aging. Because to them, getting zinged means getting attention.

"It makes you feel important if somebody gives you a zinger, that you're noticed," one man said.

For many elderly Americans getting noticed isn't easy. Older men, especially, are more likely to become isolated, leading to loneliness and depression. Groups of Romeos exist all over the country to help overcome these issues, but that doesn't mean they're touchy-feely. They say they don't really deal with each other's problems, but just acknowledge them and move on.

"We don't handle it," one member said. "We talk about it for two or three minutes to find out what the latest news is and then we go on to things."

"The important things: like politics, who's buying drinks today, things like that," another member said.

It may not sound like much, but the Romeos' camaraderie and banter all contribute to lifted spirits, stimulated minds, and a little bit of old-fashioned male bonding, and that can be especially important for the widowers in the group.

"There's a loneliness which is attached to the position I'm in, and when you're with friends and people who care for you and you care for them, that's very consoling, very helpful," a member named Stan said.

So although some news may appear bleak, there are good things happening all over the country.