Families, students prepare for first school day

September 5, 2011 (CHICAGO)

Fathers were called upon to escort their children to the first day of school.

First grade for Trevon Holt begins Tuesday, and he wants to look good. He's not alone. Hundreds of other Chicago school students got their heads ready on Monday, too, with a free haircut at Cain's Barber College - a tradition now 12 years old - that is meant to inspire head and heart for the classroom.

"And to help them improve the kids' self esteem and encourage them to go back to school," said State Senator Mattie Hunter.

"Stay focused. That's it. Stay focused and do his work. No games at all," said Holt's mother, Kimberly Thomas, who has the lesson plan for her son who starts Tuesday at Overton elementary.

Holt said he expected to "learn my letters and stuff." Learning letters is indeed part of the plan, but Trevon may not be entirely keen on that "no games at all" thing from mom.

Staying focused is also the mantra of Devaughn Latham, an incoming sophomore at Northside College Prep who aspires to a career in robotic engineering.

"You just have to work hard towards it - you have to stay focused. That's all," said Latham.

Some parents are focused on on school uniforms for their children required to wear them. A steady stream of buyers here at the Rainbow Store. Maria Robledo bought today for her two young daughters, and figures that their clothing and school supplies will cost several hundred dollars at least,

"For me it's two girls. I can just see those with three or four kids. I couldn't imagine it. I don't want to imagine it. It's a lot of money," said Robledo.

Markers, glue sticks, pens, and, of course, the no. 2 pencils - the list goes on and on, especially for moms like Odetta Ojeda, who has three kids. A clip board and a highlighter helped the single mom shop for last minute school supplies Monday.

"I tried going kid by kid getting their things, but then I've been going around the aisles like 3 times - it's a hassle," said Ojeda.

Going back to school can be expensive, with supplies, haircuts (if you can't find one for free) and school uniforms all adding up.

Of course, money is the critical juncture in the ongoing debate over the length of the school day. The administration wants 90 minutes more a day. The teacher's union says longer doesn't automatically equal better.

"We have to come to some kind of happy medium where we get what we need as parents, but the city is not selling its future financially," said Ald. Pat Dowell.

STEM Magnet Lab School teachers broke with the union and voted for the longer day.

"Unfortunately, sometimes the union only looks for the interests of the teachers, but in this case, I really think the teachers looked for the interests of the children," said Ojeda.

"If [teachers] are asked to work longer, they should have some kind of increase in their pay," said parent Sylvia Lanza.

Besides STEM, teachers at Skinner North elementary and Genevieve Melody elementary also voted for a longer day.

The teachers union has accused the administration of bribery. Each of the three schools will get more money and its teachers will receive raises.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and CPS CEO Jean-Claude Brizard will be at STEM welcoming students Tuesday morning. Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis and Rev. Jesse Jackson will be at another school.

The immediate challenge is producing a big turnout of students tomorrow. The Black Star Project took its Million Father March door to door Monday afternoon, urging dads to, when possible, accompany their children to school.

The Million Father March was born eight years ago in Chicago, but has extended its reach to over 700 cities nationwide.

"When fathers are involved, children have better grade point averages, higher test scores, better attendance, higher graduation rates," said Black Star Project Executive Director Phillip Jackson.

Jackson says he expected 25,000 to 30,000 fathers will accompany their children to school Tuesday in Chicago, but his message is clearly that the commitment goes well beyond the first day.

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