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Safe Passage

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Steven Parker stakes out a spot in the open lot between Mary C. Terrell Elementary School and one of the 16-story towers in the Robert Taylor Homes public housing complex on Chicago's South Side. Wearing a now-familiar black jacket with gold letters, Parker greets the small children stuffed into thick winter coats as they pass by, part of the last wave of students trickling out of the towers and into school before the 9 a.m. bell.

The jacket identifies the father of four as a "parent attendance officer" with the Chicago public schools. He is one of about 80 parents recruited after a recent spate of shootings to patrol the treacherous landscape in and around the Taylor Homes complex and escort kids to class. The parent officers, who undergo a background check, are paid $8 an hour for two hours in the morning and afternoon. In addition to shepherding children to and from school, they climb the Taylor towers' dank stairwells and knock on doors to remind other parents to get their children ready for school.

Once the children are safely in their classrooms, the parent officers often head out in pairs to check on absent students. Many volunteer at the schools between their paid work hours.

So far, district officials say, the parent presence—supplemented by community volunteers organized primarily by local churches—has produced tangible results. After the shootings in January, many children stayed home from school. At one point, Terrell lost a third of its enrollment. But attendance is back up, and parents are more involved in their children's schools than ever before.

Parker and the other parent officers realize that their power has limits. "I know I can't stop a bullet," he says. "But I felt I needed to be out here." Parker does carry a cellular telephone with the speed dial programmed with two numbers: those of the police and the elementary school.

Alice Scott has five children at Terrell. Though she grew up in and around Taylor Homes, the attendance officer says she still feels uneasy roaming the dilapidated towers. "It does make me nervous, no doubt about it," she says. "I do think about the guns, but usually the gangs are shooting at somebody, and it's not you—you hope."

Paul Vallas, chief executive officer for the 430,000-student district, says the program is here to stay. Seven of the eight schools covered by the parent patrols are on the district's probation list, meaning that fewer than 15 percent of their students are performing at grade level. The bottom line, Vallas says, is that children cannot improve academically if they don't come to class. "We're resorting to this approach, which some find radical, because the proof is in the pudding," he says. "Children are in school now."

Toya Harris, a 5th grader at Terrell, acknowledges that the parent escorts have improved things. But something else would help a lot more. "We need to move," she says. "Then I'll feel safer."

—Lynn Schnaiberg

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