Chicago Hires Parents as Safety Escorts in Violent Areas

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Steven A. 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.

Wearing a now-familiar black jacket with gold letters, Mr. 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 part of a "walking school bus" of about 80 parent escorts recruited last month to patrol the often treacherous landscape in and around the Taylor Homes on the city's South Side.

Like the other parents, Mr. Parker is paid for his services. He carries a cellular telephone with two numbers set on speed dial: one to the elementary school, the other to the police.

When a rash of shootings in the area prompted parents to keep their children home from schools last month--at one point Terrell lost one-third of its 600 students--the district and the predominantly African-American community took action.

To many here, the parent patrols are a sign of just how difficult it is to assure student safety and attendance in some of the city's most troubled neighborhoods. Securing schools from the inside is a much simpler task than controlling what happens outside the schoolhouse door.

'Can't Stop a Bullet'

The parent officers, who must 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 parents often head out again in pairs to check on absent students. Many of the parents volunteer at the schools between their paid work hours.

So far, the parent presence--supplemented by community volunteers organized primarily by local churches--has produced tangible results, district officials say.

Attendance is up. The city housing authority and police have beefed up their presence in the area. And parents are more involved in their children's schools than ever before, principals say.

But Mr. Parker, for one, realizes that their power has limits. "I know I can't stop a bullet," he said. "But I felt I needed to be out here."

Alice M. Scott has five children at Terrell Elementary. Though she grew up in and around the Taylor Homes with her 11 brothers, the attendance officer says she still feels uneasy roaming the dilapidated towers.

"It does make me nervous, no doubt about it," she said. "I do think about the guns, but usually the gangs are shooting at somebody and it's not you--you hope."

'Radical' Approach

Though many teachers and administrators at Terrell worry about safety--for the children and for themselves--it has not stopped them from coming to work, said Ceola Barnes, the school's interim principal.

Not even after a recent shooting during school hours in a parking lot near the classrooms. Ms. Barnes said she just hopes the district's efforts will last.

Paul G. Vallas, the chief executive officer of the 430,000-student district, says the plan is here to stay. The bottom line, he believes, is that students cannot improve if they are not in school.

Seven of the eight schools targeted in the Taylor Homes area are on the district's probation list because fewer than 15 percent of their students are performing at grade level.

"We're resorting to this approach, which some find radical, because the proof is in the pudding," Mr. Vallas said. "Children are in school now."

This is not the first time Chicago officials have acted in the face of violence around schools. Last year, Mr. Vallas proposed busing students out of their elementary school in the Cabrini-Green housing project just north of downtown Chicago. When community members objected, the district adopted a plan similar to the one now in place around the Robert Taylor Homes.

At a packed training session for parent officers held last week a few blocks from Terrell, the message was more about job readiness and responsibility than dodging bullets.

Kimberly Muhammad-Earl, the district's director of special projects, reminded parents of their purpose. "You are not social workers," she warned. "You are not police officers. Do not overstep your bounds."

The escorts are only the latest in a series of efforts the district has made to improve safety in troubled neighborhoods, including extending after-school programs, keeping schools open during vacations, and busing some high school students so they do not have to walk through gang turf.

Toya Harris, a 5th grader at Terrell, says she feels somewhat safer when the escorts come knocking at her door. But something else, something beyond the district's reach, would make her feel a whole lot better.

"We need to move," the 11-year-old said. "Then I'll feel safer."

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