CHICAGO — Busy, unfamiliar streets were made a bit friendlier Monday, the first day of school in Chicago, thanks to hundreds of newly hired safety guards. But some parents expressed doubt the effort would protect their children, who now must cross gang boundaries to get to their new classrooms after their old ones closed.
The Safe Passage program guards in neon vests lined city streets in neighborhoods with closed schools, the most visible sign of what's at stake for the nation's third-largest school district, which is struggling academically and financially.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who called Monday "a new beginning" for the district, planned to join students walking to O'Toole Elementary in the West Englewood neighborhood on the city's South Side.
The Chicago Board of Education — hand-picked by Emanuel — voted in May to close about 50 elementary schools and programs, a move Emanuel and schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said would allow the district to improve academics and help pay down a $1 billion budget deficit.
Critics of the school closings said minority students were disproportionately affected and that many students would now have to cross dangerous gang boundaries. Some families sued, but a federal judge refused to halt the plan.
On Monday, concerned parents took time off of work or recruited family members to make sure students arrived at their new schools.
Annie Stoball walked her granddaughter, 9-year-old Kayla Porter, to Gresham Elementary School in the Gresham neighborhood, about 4 miles south of O'Toole Elementary.
Stoball said she's skeptical Chicago's first-day show of force will last.
"I think it's just show-and-tell right now," Stoball said. "Five, six weeks down the road, let's see what's going to happen."
One of the guards in the Gresham neighborhood, 57-year-old Rochelle Nicholson, said their presence is reassuring to students and is needed "for the children's safety."
There have been a number of shootings along the Safe Passage routes this summer, including one in the Uptown neighborhood on the North Side last Monday. Five were injured and one of the men died last week.
Jennifer Press, who drove her 4-year-old daughter to a preschool program at Gresham Elementary, said gang violence is a concern for her. She has two other young children.
"They will ride to school for the rest of their lives, as long as I'm in Chicago," Press said.
CPS hired an additional 600 workers at a rate of $10 per hour to supplement an existing program known as Safe Passage. The newly hired workers include includes Chicago firefighters and even security guards from local public libraries.
"Safe Passage is about more than just building a route to school," Emanuel told about 1,000 people during a training session last week. "It is about building a route to college, career and beyond, so that once our kids get to school, they get the world-class education they deserve.
"That's a new chapter," Emanuel said. "There is a new beginning."
The Safe Passage program was already was in place at 35 high schools and four elementary schools — buildings district officials say have seen a 7 percent increase in attendance and a 20 percent decrease in crime since Safe Passage began.
Chicago police worked with residents and CPS to map out routes in 52 of the so-called "welcoming schools" — the ones taking in students from the closed schools. Bright yellow signs have been posted along the routes and maps were distributed to parents and guardians.
Emanuel also deployed city departments to repair sidewalks, replace street lights, paint over graffiti and board up nearly 300 abandoned buildings along the routes.
Schools themselves also saw improvements, including upgraded air conditioning and new libraries and computer labs, even though CPS in recent months laid off more than 3,000 teachers and staff members due to budget issues.