Corrected: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of public schools in Chicago. There are more than 600.
To ease the disruption from the largest set of school closings in the nation’s history, parents, police, volunteers, and district employees in Chicago’s public schools all showed up for the start of school this week to make sure students got to class safely.
Concerns that gang-related violence in the city would be exacerbated by the consolidations or closures this year of 49 of the city’s more than 600 schools prompted a surge in community support and attention, and the expansion of a school district program designed to help students get safely to and from school.
More than 57 miles of Chicago’s streets were patrolled by some 1,200 staff and volunteers with the district’s Safe Passage program as the school year began on Monday.
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, 51 new schools were added to that list this year.
Jadine Chou, the chief safety and security officer for the Chicago school system, said the Safe Passage program was part of a holistic approach to safety being undertaken by the district. Philadelphia, Detroit, and other districts have patrols near schools to help ensure students’ safety on their school commute. But Chicago’s is the largest effort in the country.
The district touts the success the Safe Passage program has had in its high schools before. Attendance increased 7 percent in the schools that had the program over the past two years, said Ms. Chou, and violent crime in the areas surrounding those schools decreased.
Safe Passage workers are employed five days a week, five hours a day, and get paid $10 per hour. The district is spending an additional $7.7 million on the Safe Passage program this year, said Elizabeth Utrup, a spokeswoman for the 403,000-student district. That money is coming out of the district’s general budget. The district also worked with other city agencies to install some 1,600 signs and prepare the routes.
But rather than hire Safe Passage workers directly, the district contracts out to vendors, which are based in the neighborhoods where the routes will be, to hire and support the workers.
Pastor Chris Harris, the founder of Bright Star Community Outreach, one of 18 organizations acting as vendors, said the district had done well to employ neighborhood groups to help organize it. “It’s about relationships,” he said, noting that, ideally, vendors have a sense of the neighborhood’s needs and get to know the students who walk their paths each day.
In fact, Mr. Harris had been running his own version of Safe Passage at neighborhood elementary schools before the district began its program.
On Tuesday, he surveyed the Safe Passage program at work at Drake Elementary School, in the city’s Bronzeville neighborhood. But he noticed another group of people accompanying students to school: “See how many parents are out?” he said.
Some 47 organizations applied to be Safe Passage vendors this year.
Protests and Boycotts
This is the second year Chicago has faced a tumultuous return to school: A teachers’ strike last year shut down buildings for a week and a half.
On Wednesday, several hundred parents, activists, and students showed up to boycott the massive wave of closings in the mayorally controlled district. They marched from the district’s office to City Hall. Their complaints go beyond the closure of schools, though: Protesters called for an elected school board and decried budget cuts. They also lambasted the board for requiring members of the public to register before attending board meetings. The district issued a statement on Wednesday saying that it would update its guidelines to clarify that such registration is requested, rather than required.
Tunyona Frazier, a parent whose daughter had attended the now-closed Parkman Elementary School, argued that the Safe Passage efforts weren’t enough to protect students from any violence brought on by the closings. “Let’s say shooting breaks out. What can you do?” she said. “What can they actually do to protect our kids? All they got is a cellphone and green vest.”
Ms. Frazier said that she planned to take her daughter to the closed school on the first day of school in order to protest.
Pastor Harris said that while the school closures had angered many, “If CPS did nothing, they would’ve been mad.”
At Drake Elementary School in Bronzeville, parents joined their students in the hallways on the second day of school. Drake is the site of one of the district’s so-called “reverse consolidations”: The school building, which was called Williams Elementary School last year, has been renamed Drake and will host students from both Williams and the old Drake, which was located 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 these first days.
“But by 10:00, most of them have gone home,” she said.
Paving the Way
Last year, in preparation for the consolidation, students from Drake and Williams Skyped with each other. Some older elementary school students and middle schoolers 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 her 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.
So far, she said, though students were anxious, things were going smoothly. “I don’t see the division,” she said.
Howard Moody, the parent of a student at Morgan Park High School, said, “You see police, press now...But once all the cameras are gone, what’s going to happen?”
The memory of the 2009 murder of Derrion Albert at Chicago’s Christian Fenger Academy High School following a previous round of school closings still lingers in the city, Mr. Harris said.
At Melody Elementary School on Chicago’s West Side, Chicago Public Library employees joined Safe Passage Workers and Chicago police in patrolling school dismissal this week. A 14-year-old boy was shot just half a block away from Melody the day before the start of school.
Ms. Chou said the Safe Passage workers’ work would continue long after the first week of school. “We had a lot of support [on the first days of school]. We’re using that support to get a real good start and get momentum. But after the first week, it’s going to be a combination of us and the Chicago police.”
But Ms. Chou said she doesn’t doubt the workers’ commitment to continuing throughout the school year.
“We’ve had years of experience getting people to do this,” she said. “People understand this is not just a job.”
A version of this article appeared in the September 11, 2013 edition of Education Week