CHICAGO —The first day of school in one neighborhood on this city's far South Side brought a parade of security workers in neon vests, Chicago police officers on patrol, an idling city fire truck and, briefly, a police helicopter hovering above.
All this to make sure that students from a shuttered elementary school could make it safely past abandoned lots, boarded-up houses and perhaps gang lines to get to their new school less than a half mile away.
And to some parents that did not seem like enough. "It's still really too dangerous," said Larissa Henderson as she walked her 4-year-old son, Adrian Wright, to his first day of kindergarten.
When Chicago leaders announced last spring that they would close 47 elementary schools this fall, the move stirred worries far beyond education. Many parents feared it would require some children, particularly those on the city's poorer South and West Sides, to walk down more crime-ridden blocks and across new gang boundaries.
While plenty of cities have programs to help children get to and from school safely, experts said few appear to be as elaborate and comprehensive as Chicago's — a fact advocates held up as proof of the city's intense commitment to education and critics described as an unhappy reflection of the city's struggle with violence.
Monday's overwhelming security presence played out for students at more than 90 schools around Chicago, the nation's third-largest school district.
Known as Safe Passage, the program began after the beating death in 2009 of a 16-year-old student, Derrion Albert, after he left his South Side high school. But with the closing of so many schools, city officials say the number of routes has more than doubled this year and the cost of the program has also nearly doubled, to $15.7 million.
By Monday, along the Safe Passage routes, about 1,200 unarmed workers, wearing neon vests, carrying cellphones that doubled as walkie-talkies and making $10 an hour, had been trained to stand watch as students passed by. To prepare, city employees in recent weeks had demolished 41 vacant buildings along the routes, trimmed 4,900 trees, removed 2,800 instances of graffiti and fixed hundreds of streetlights.
"The ultimate goal of all efforts — both in the building, on the way to the building and at home — is so kids will think about their studies, not their safety," Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who spent part of the morning along Safe Passage routes around the city, said later in an interview. "The city is diverse. This isn't everywhere. But it does address certain parts of the city and certain communities so every child has a level playing field."
In 2012, more than 500 people were killed in Chicago, drawing national attention to gangs and the gun violence that has flourished in some neighborhoods. The killings have decreased since then; 266 people have been killed here this year as of Sunday, the police said.
While Chicago Public Schools officials had said that the closings, which are expected to save $43 million this year, were needed because the schools had too few students, opponents worried about safety.
"I hope they'll be safe and I want them to be safe, but I don't know if this is enough," said Inez Jackson, whose daughter, a third-grader, had wept, she said, when her South Side school, Songhai, closed.