Thousands of Chicago children whose schools were shuttered last spring walked to new ones on the first day of school Monday under the watchful eye of police officers and newly hired safety guards there to provide protection as the kids crossed unfamiliar streets — many of them gang boundaries.
No incidents of trouble were reported, police said. Although that didn’t surprise parents and grandparents, they said they were still concerned that the city’s obvious show of first-day force won’t keep their children safe in the weeks and months to come.
“I think it’s just show-and-tell right now,” said Annie Stovall, who walked her granddaughter, 9-year-old Kayla Porter, to Gresham Elementary School, which is about five blocks farther from home than Kayla’s previous South Side school. “Five, six weeks down the road, let’s see what’s going to happen.”
Kathy Miller stood in front of Gresham Elementary with her three children, waiting for a bus that would take them to another school. She scoffed at the Safe Passage program, in which guards clad in neon vests line Chicago streets, saying it won’t be long before brightly colored signs announcing the program’s routes will be riddled with bullets.
“Those signs don’t mean nothing,” she said.
The preparation and show of force highlight what’s at stake for Chicago Public Schools, the nation’s third-largest school district, after it closed almost 50 schools last spring in the hopes of improving academic performance and saving millions of dollars. About 12,000 of the district’s 400,000 students were affected by the closures.
For months, parents, teachers and community activists have warned that forcing children to pass through some of the city’s most impoverished and dangerous neighborhoods — where some already walk in the middle of the street to avoid being ambushed by gang members — to get to school puts them at undue risk.
Statistics suggest those concerns are valid. An analysis of Chicago crime data by WBEZ-FM found that in 2013, there have been 133 shootings and 38 homicides in and around areas that have been newly marked as Safe Passage routes. And Monday morning, sanitation workers discovered the body of a man inside a garbage can about a half-block from one of the South Side’s Safe Passage routes. Police said they think he died overnight but provided no other details.
With the hope of preventing problems, the financially strapped city hired 600 workers at a rate of $10 an hour to supplement a Safe Passage program that has existed since 2009.
Police worked with residents and CPS to map out routes near 52 of the so-called “welcoming schools” that are taking in students from the closed schools. Along those routes, the city has put up scores of “Safe Passage” signs.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel also deployed city departments to repair sidewalks, replace street lights, paint over graffiti and board up nearly 300 abandoned buildings.
Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy said Monday he was pleased with how things were going, particularly in what he saw as evidence of community and parent involvement.
“I’m seeing small groups of kids being walked to school by their parents, or their older brothers or sisters,” McCarthy told reporters. “This goes to the heart of what we’ve been talking about since I’ve been here, which is, to me, this is an opportunity. This is true community policing.”