CPS parents, kids, staff assess first day of school

August 26, 2013 (CHICAGO)

This new school year will be unlike any before it. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel was calling this year a new beginning. It is the first time Chicago Public Schools are starting before Labor Day, and there is a longer school day. For more than 12,000 kids, it means attending classes in a new building. This is also the first time CPS is on a unified calendar and is offering full-day kindergarten.

Help for Parents:
CPS Official Hotline: 773-553-3223
CTU Complaint Hotline: 773-916-P4T4 (7484)

Marquese Sanja, 9, arrived dressed for the first day of fourth grade at Fiske Elementary in his red power tie.

"My mom just told me I had to wear this," he said.

Fiske, on the city's South Side, consolidated with Sexton Elementary this year after the school district shuttered nearly 50 public schools and laid off thousands of teachers.

"Over the weekend, we had lots of members of our team at every single welcoming building with a punch list, a checklist, to make sure all of our pieces and parts are in place," CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said Monday.

Some parents who were upset and worried about the painful budget cuts initially, said they felt different Monday.

"You know, sometimes, you have to make a change, and change is for the good sometimes, and I think it's going to be for the good for him," mother Gloria Pickett said.

Fiske Elementary is one of the schools in the district that got several upgrades: a new science lab, a new computer lab, and with the temperatures rising into the 90s Monday and Tuesday, every classroom has air conditioning.

"The building is beautiful. The building is clean. The building is painted. It says welcome. It says come children," said Fiske Principal Cynthia Miller.

The Morgan brothers -- Jonah, 10, and Lucus, 7 -- were among hundreds of CPS students heading to new schools Monday. They live across the street from Trumbull School and had been going there for years, but Trumbull was on CPS' list of school closures. All of the students were split up and sent to different schools starting Monday. The first day back at a new school you've never been to, or know nothing about, can be downright scary, especially for parents.

"There are 30 kids in his class. That's news. There are a thousand kids on this playground. Before, we had 407. So, it's different, a lot of new faces, a lot of new stuff," said father James Morgan.

The Morgan boys were confident as they got ready to go to Pierce School, seven blocks away, but when they got there things quickly changed. Unlike other students, they don't get the option to ride the free shuttle bus to school. The Morgan family had never been inside the building before Monday.

"Jonah looked like he was going to have a meltdown. We'll see how the day goes on. I can't stand here all day, but I have my phone," James Morgan said. "We never had the welcoming parties and shirts that the other kids had."

A handful of Trumbull students ended up at Pierce, like Myra Paz, who only has one friend there.

"I don't know these people. I've never been to this school before," said Paz.

James Morgan said he was confident his sons would adjust over time.

Students walk new Safe Passage routes for 1st time

Monday was the first test for the Safe Passage program, designed to make sure all kids who have to access new schools by crossing gang territory get there safely.

Byrd-Bennett rang in the new school year at Fiske, reassuring parents their kids will be safe on the Safe Passage routes.

"I hope that moms and dads and grandmoms and aunties are walking their children to school this morning, and if they aren't, we've got our people out there ready to ensure that our children get to school safely," said Byrd-Bennett.

Chicago Public Schools says there will be 1,200 combined, yellow-vested Safe Passage workers making $10 per hour out watching children walk to and from school along 53 new routes, in addition to 39 existing ones.

New routes were developed for welcoming schools after other schools were closed. Some kids now have to walk an extra six or seven blocks to get to their new schools, a big concern for many parents and guardians.

Mayor Emanuel walked with a group of children as they went to class on one of the new routes. Near O'Toole Elementary, which is not a welcoming school, everything seemed to go smoothly the first morning of Safe Passage to school. But the real test could be weeks from now.

"My friends are going to be so jealous," said fourth grade student Asharie Wesley.

"Our children in the city of Chicago, for them to live up to their full potential, we have to live up to our full responsibility, which means giving every child a full school day and a full school year," the mayor said.

"There will be eyes on the students. There will be people that will be watching the students. Students are going to know that. Families are going to know that. There is not going to be much they can get away with," said Julius James, a Safe Passage worker.

But does the word "safe" in Safe Passage give a false sense of security?

"No, this is a much more comprehensive approach than we have done in the past. This is involving all city agencies, rather than just the police department and CPS. I am very satisfied. I have worked about five or six routes, so far. I will be out all afternoon. I am very satisfied with the deployment," said Garry McCarthy, superintendent of the Chicago Police Department.

A shooting took place along one of the routes in the 1400-block of South Tripp Avenue late Sunday, not during Safe Passage hours. A 28-year-old man was shot in the neck and suffered a graze wound to the back. That man was listed in guarded condition at Mount Sinai Hospital Monday. No one was in custody in the shooting.

The fear of violence had one father, Patrick Baggett, walking with his four children Monday -- his own kind of Safe Passage.

"I am going to take my kids and come get them," Baggett said.

In addition to CPS workers, Chicago police officers, firefighters and Streets and Sanitation workers will also participate in the Safe Passage program.

CPS also says abandoned buildings along Safe Passage routes have been boarded up. The entire Safe Passage program with the new routes is costing the city of Chicago more than $11 million.

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