Chicago Public Schools (CPS) students have made their way back to class today, marking the first day of school since the Chicago Board of Education voted to shutter 50 neighborhood schools in May. Forty-eight of those schools were closed in June.
Today is also the first day the expanded Safe Passage program has gone into effect, which is meant to help students safely travel to and from school as thousands of children trek to unfamiliar schools this year as a result of the closings. Many of the welcoming schools are located farther away from students' homes than their previous school, leading critics of the closings to say the move puts children at an increased risk of falling prey to gang violence or predators. Just one day before school began, a 28 year-old man was shot along a Safe Passage route and a 14 year-old boy was shot and killed less than a block away from Melody Stem School, a West Side welcoming school. Nonetheless, CPS insists the hundreds of workers in the Safe Passage program will provide students with the necessary security and supervision needed to keep them safe.
This morning, neighbors were out on their porches, Chicago Fire Department trucks and staff were on the streets and the police presence was heavy as all eyes, including the media's, were on the handling of the first day of school. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel was out in Englewood along a Safe Passage route for O'Toole Elementary School. While folks were happy to see the mayor's involvement, they are wary of how long such participation and heavy-handed supervision of their children will last.
"If they keep it up, it could be good," Reginald Wesley, parent of two O'Toole students, told the Chicago Sun-Times. "But the mayor's only one man. If it's just for publicity, that won't do too much good."
The Chicago Teachers Union's Jackson Potter echoed Wesley's sentiment.
"It's only budgeted for a year, and of course right now they have all the police, fire trucks and everything to show this big spectacle," Potter, a staff coordinator for the union, told the newspaper. "But in reality, there's no guarantee this is going to be here a year from now, and there's plenty of routes that children come before the Safe Passage routes are available, after school when it's late and they're in after-school programs. They can't guarantee their safety."
Chicago Police Department chief Garry McCarthy acknowledged that although this morning appears to have been successful, it is just the beginning of a long school year.
"There's a ton of officers out here, and we're gonna make sure everything's good," McCarthy told DNAinfo Chicago this morning.
"We're doing good, but if this were a football game, it's the first quarter," he continued. "So it's starting off well, and we feel good."
And while CPS students made it to school this morning without incident, Parents 4 Teachers (P4T) sent out a press release moments ago encouraging Chicagoans to make use of their School Closings Accountability Hotline to report any "problems, lack of resources, safety concerns and other issues at the new 'receiving' schools their children will be attending this year."
"CPS promised facilities upgrades, new programs, I-Pads, air conditioning and other improvements to the receiving schools in a failed effort to win parent, teacher and student support for the largest round of school closings in the nation," the notice goes on to read.
At Haley Elementary School, students did embark on a new school year in a building with air conditioning, new window screens, desks and chairs, but eight grade students were told that they would not receive their laptops today; although they were instructed on how to treat them once they were given out, according to the Chicago Tribune.
“CPS is very good at making promises, but they have a horrible track record for keeping them,” said Erica Clark, a CPS parent and member of P4T, which intends to hold CPS officials' feet to fire when it comes to following through with the promised school and resource improvements that were said to come in the wake of the most sweeping round of school closings in U.S. history.
Check back with Progress Illinois later today for a look at how the first morning back went for CPS students at one West Side welcoming school.
Image: AP Photos/M. Spencer Green