The financially strapped Chicago district opened the new school year with fewer schools and a diminished staff, but with a massive security presence meant to ease disruptions from the largest set of school closings in the nation’s history.
While safety concerns dominated the district’s opening days, students, parents, and teachers were also grappling with other major changes wrought by the consolidations or closures of 49 of the city’s more than 600 schools. More than 12,000 students in the city are attending different schools from last year, and the district shed roughly 1,600 teachers and staff members earlier this year in an effort to address a $1 billion budget deficit.
It’s the second straight year that Chicago—the nation’s third largest district with 403,000 students—has returned to school amid tumult. Last fall, a teachers’ strike upended the start of the academic year for more than a week. District officials said that the first two weeks of school this year had gone smoothly and that a 93.5 percent student attendance rate on the first day of school exceeded last year’s.
But some parents, the teachers’ union, and advocates remain concerned about how the rest of the school year will unfold, especially after the district’s recently approved budget for fiscal 2014 signaled that more spending cuts may be coming down the pike.
Safety a Priority
Concerns that gang-related violence in the city would be exacerbated by the massive reassignment of students from shuttered schools to campuses in other neighborhoods prompted district leaders to expand its Safe Passage program. More than 57 miles of streets are now lined with yellow signs and patrolled by some 1,200 new Safe Passage workers to ensure students get to and from school safely.
Those efforts to keep students safe and in school are expected to continue long after the start of school.
“We had a lot of support [on the first days of school],” said Jadine Chou, the chief safety and security officer for the district. “We’re using that support to get a real good start and get momentum.”
The district’s demonstration of safety measures, though, has not quelled the controversy over the wave of closings that has roiled the city for months.
On the third day of the school year, hundreds of parents, activists, and students marched from the district’s downtown headquarters to City Hall in order to protest the closings and consolidations, which they said had disproportionately affected African-American neighborhoods. Protesters also demanded an elected school board to oversee the district controlled by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, called for the city’s school board to stop requiring registration for its public meetings, and decried budget cuts.
The district’s $6.6 billion budget for fiscal 2014 includes some $134 million less for regular public schools this year and will entail cuts to arts, music, and library services as well as programs for autistic and special-needs students, according to the Chicago Teachers Union.
Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the district’s chief executive officer, said that the lack of public-pension reform in the Illinois legislature has put the district in an untenable financial position.
“We can’t cut our way out of this crisis. We need meaningful pension reform that can generate significant savings and prevent devastating future cuts to our schools,” she said in a statement.
The teachers’ union, however, has criticized district leaders for not advocating for additional local funding resources for the school system and for continuing to support the expansion of charter schools across the city.
Jeanette Smith, a parent and member of the local school council for Mollison Elementary School, which was combined with students from a school that was shut down, argued that the closings and other budget cuts have been especially difficult for poor, African-American communities.
“We’re worn out,” she said. She added that she was skeptical about how much the Safe Passage program would actually improve safety.
Ms. Chou, the district’s safety official said the Safe Passage program is just the most visible part of a holistic approach to safety being undertaken by the district as it transitions to fewer schools.
The Safe Passage program was started in 2009, and 37 schools, most of them high schools, hosted the program last year. But in the wake of the closures, district officials added 51 new schools, mainly elementary, to that list. The Chicago district touts the program’s success so far. Attendance increased 7 percent in Safe Passage schools over the past two years, said Ms. Chou, and violent crime in the areas surrounding those schools decreased. Philadelphia, Detroit, and other districts also have patrols near schools to help ensure students’ safety during their commute.
Christopher T. Harris, the founder of Bright Star Community Outreach, one of 18 organizations acting as vendors for the program, said the district had done well to employ neighborhood groups to help organize the safety effort.
Maintaining a stable workforce can be a challenge: In the first weeks of the program, there were reports that some vendors lost as many as half their employees to the summer heat or to better-paying jobs. The district said that vendors were prepared for such turnover. “All Safe Passage vendors have instituted an ongoing hiring process,” said Keiana A. Barrett, a district spokeswoman.
At John B. Drake Elementary School in Bronzeville, on Chicago’s South Side, parents joined their children in the hallways on the second day of school. The school building, which was called Williams Elementary School last year, has been renamed Drake and hosts students from Williams and the old Drake building, which was a few blocks away.
Keshia Warner, Drake’s principal, said that she knew parents and students were anxious about the changes this year and welcomed parents to stay in the school in the first days. Combined schools like Drake received new air conditioning and other improvements over the summer.
To prepare for the merger of the schools, students from Drake and Williams “Skyped” with each other last spring. Some older elementary and middle school students joined each other to watch “Remember the Titans,” a movie about the integration of public schools in Alexandria, Va. “It helped start conversations about leadership, about getting along,” Ms. Warner said.
Ms. Warner said that last year, at the old Drake, most of the teachers taught split classes, with 1st and 2nd graders in a single classroom, for instance. This year, with about 540 students, the school has two classrooms per grade, she said.
By midweek, students were getting used to being together. “I don’t see the division,” the principal said.
Still, tensions around the city remained high. The 2009 murder of Derrion Albert at Christian Fenger Academy High School following a previous round of school closings lingers with many city residents, Mr. Harris said.
At Melody Elementary School on Chicago’s West Side, public library employees joined Safe Passage workers and police in patrolling school dismissal during the first week of school. A 14-year-old boy was shot just half a block away from Melody the day before the start of school.
A version of this article appeared in the September 11, 2013 edition of Education Week as Budget, Security Concerns as Chicago Schools Open