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Twice, I stopped by Steele Lane School while the nearly three dozen Santa Rosa High special-ed students were doing what they did to the landscaping out in front of the grade school.

Believe me, this wasn't simply a bit of routine weeding and pruning. The SRHS students, whose hands-on program aspires to teach them life skills essential to becoming employed and as self-reliant as possible, restored and beautified Steele Lane School's front yard.

They pulled trash out of the shrubbery and spread yards of wood chips in spots that were bare or weedy. And they placed potted plants to brighten the view of Steele Lane office staffers whose windows look out onto the back of an ugly wall.

When would the groundskeepers whose union filed a grievance over the kids' project have performed that same work? Precisely never.

The essence of work — being diligent and thorough, taking and giving orders and functioning as a team — is what the inventive SRHS program tries to teach these students. kids. They don't sit idle at desks but perform all sorts of creative, entrepreneurial tasks devised by themselves and by teachers seeking better ways to equip them for life.

The employees who could never hope to complete all of the landscaping work that needs to be done on school grounds aren't in jeopardy of losing their jobs to these special-needs kids.

And even if they were, why are the schools there? To provide instruction and training children need to be prepared for adult life, or to provide contractual job security for groundskeepers?

Here, the teachers are striving to think outside the box, and they find themselves named in a union grievance for stepping on someone's toes.

It seems the people griping about the move at the French-American charter school to substantially upgrade student lunches are doing the same thing as the union. They're stifling creativity, complaining that what could become an model for schools everywhere isn't fair because it's not being provided to all the kids at all Santa Rosa's schools.

Stay inside the box, the critics of the inventive SRHS living-skills program and the French-American school's lunch program are saying. Keep all public-school kids inside the same box.

But drive past Steele Lane and imagine the endeavor and pride that went into that work, and get a sense of what can happen if we stand up for students to become unboxed.

SCREAMIN' MIMI'S, possibly the coolest and creamiest ice cream parlor on Earth, came close to a disastrous meltdown the other morning.

Maraline "Mimi" Olson is so grateful that Sonoma County Sheriff's Deputy Vince Mestrovich noticed at about 2 a.m. Friday that the downtown Sebastopol shop was filled with smoke.

A ceiling vent fan had fried, dripping melted plastic onto a rack of paper supplies and igniting them.

Mestrovich alerted Sebastopol Fire, which got an engine there so fast that firefighters carried out the storage rack without spraying any water.

The relatively minor smoke and soot damage closed the shop on Friday, the last day of school and first day of ice cream season. But Mimi and her crew celebrated a catastrophe averted by lugging the goods outside in ice chests and dispensing free scoops and cups.

"The deputy and the fire department," she rejoiced, "saved summer."

THOSE FIRE ENGINES streaming along Highway 101 on Friday were bound to or from a memorial service at the Wells Fargo Center for Alexander Stevenson.

The '91 Casa Grande High alum loved serving as a firefighter in Sonoma, Lake and Napa counties and never allowed brain cancer to dim his spark.

AT 2 P.M. SATURDAY the spirit and music of John Philip Sousa will fill the Healdsburg Plaza in an unusual, and free, concert.

The Healdsburg Community Band and the New Horizons Band will come together — 70 musicians, bedecked in black-and-white — to re-create a 1920s-era Sunday Sousa concert in a park.

They'll play 14 greatest hits. That's a lotsa Sousa.

(Chris Smith is at 521-5211 and chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.)