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So Far, Chicago's 'Safe Passage' Plan a Success

Walking to O'Toole Elementary in Englewood for the first day of school, fourth-grader Asharie Wesley got the Safe Passage-plus treatment Monday as she strolled past a group of firefighters helping out on the designated route along Damen Avenue.

The 9-year-old was accompanied not just by her dad, Reginald, but also by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the TV news crews that cling to him like magnets.

Reginald Wesley said he was grateful for the beefed-up security effort on the first day of school, but he wondered aloud if Emanuel's Safe Passage plan will have staying power as the year goes on.

"If they keep it up, it could be good," Wesley said. "But the mayor's only one man. If it's just for publicity, that won't do too much good."

That was a question asked by many as Chicago Public Schools started classes with a significantly reduced school footprint and a mayor who was pulling out all the stops to demonstrate his less-is-more educational math will leave the city's public school children both safer and smarter.

With the district's decision to close a record-high 47 schools pushing thousands of elementary school children into new and unfamiliar territory, there has been considerable fear of confrontation both on the streets and in schools where rival gang members might find themselves under the same roof.

For the most part, however, the first day of school went smoothly for the city's public school children, though there were some bumpy moments for Emanuel. The mayor dropped plans to walk with students from Cather Elementary on a West Side Safe Passage route after protesters showed up to urge a boycott of CPS schools.

Emanuel then went to his next scheduled stop at nearby UIC College Prep High School, part of the privately run Noble Network of Charter Schools that is frequently praised by the mayor. There he watched a geography class.

CPS chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett, also out at schools during the day, issued a statement saying the district was "very pleased and grateful for the collaborative effort on the part of our principals, teachers, parents and city sister agencies and departments that made today a smooth, seamless and safe start to the school year for our students."

Much of the attention Monday focused on precautions taken by the city to protect thousands of students who had attended the closed schools, most on the South and West sides, and now have to make longer walks to class through troubled neighborhoods with heavy gang activity.

The vast majority of the district's 403,000 children went to the same school as last year. Those schools, while not facing new security issues, are struggling to deal with steep budget cuts that have cost teachers and programs.

In addition to Safe Passage, the schools designated to take in students from closed buildings featured a wide menu of program enhancements and building improvements that Emanuel's administration provided to help closings go down easier.

The opening of school is always a plunge into the unfamiliar, with students and teachers alike careful to be at their best. The real test for the changes demanded by Emanuel will be in the weeks and months to come as things settle into routine and children, being children, inevitably get a little bolder.

For Monday, at least, Emanuel appeared to be settling on the municipal equivalent of shock and awe to win over doubters of his school closings plan.

Hundreds of newly hired Safe Passage workers were stationed along specially designated routes between dozens of closed schools and the welcoming schools designated by the district. A significant show of police force also was on hand around many of the welcoming schools.

Police cruisers patrolled around many schools, including Ward Elementary on the West Side, which took over the building that formerly housed the now-shuttered Ryerson Elementary.

Shortly before the dismissal bell sounded, marked police vehicles circled the area and an unmarked sedan stopped one beat-up Chevrolet outside the school. After a brief conversation with an officer the driver continued on his way.

"I've never seen it like this," said resident Robert Williams, 67, who has lived in the area for nearly 50 years.

Sixth-grader Nashon Peace said there were no issues even though students from the two schools now housed together at Ward had long been bitter rivals. He said he fears that may not last, however.

A significant police presence as children headed to Mays Elementary in the morning was intensified in the afternoon. A dozen police cars cruised the area, on top of the half-dozen officers on foot.

The scene was similar at Johnson Elementary in North Lawndale, where Chicago police Sgt. Jerry Negrete said families can expect this level of intense police presence for at least two weeks. "Probably longer," said Negrete, a police supervisor on the scene. "We have to make sure these kids are comfortable with their new routes to school. Then we will reassess."

However long an extension, it is sure to put new strains on a police overtime budget already stretched to the breaking point by the mayor's renewed attempts to crack down on street violence after murders soared early this year.

In addition to recent shootings near Safe Passage routes, a couple of incidents Monday made clear the need for extra security. The body of a man in his 40s was found Monday morning in a dumpster about a half-block from a Safe Passage route to Nicholson Technical Academy in Englewood. Preliminary indications point toward homicide, officials said.

The afternoon walk home for some Mays Elementary children was interrupted on Marquette Road at Lowe Avenue. Police closed off part of the sidewalk and rerouted students for what a source said was a reported sexual assault and robbery.

Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy said Monday he felt good about the first day of the intensified focus on school safety, while acknowledging there was a long way to go. "If this were a football game, it's the first quarter," McCarthy said. "It's starting off well and we feel good."

At Johnson Elementary, safety was the lesson of the day not just outside the school but inside as well. Asked what she learned on her first day, fifth-grader Danaja Furlow said: "My teacher told me that whatever someone might say to you in the hallway you have to stay even and always show respect. ... Oh, and don't play with scissors."

On the Far South Side, Terri Watson carried an umbrella to shield her 8-year-old daughter, Tatyanna Parker, from the sun as they walked home from Curtis Elementary in the Roseland neighborhood. The third-grader's old school, Songhai Academy, had been only two blocks from her house.

Tatyanna's walk to and from Curtis is now much longer, and she's none too thrilled. "I'm tired and hot," she complained. "It would be good if I had a fan behind me."

Both mother and daughter stuck to the designated safety route as they walked, but dozens of children leaving Curtis after the school day did not. Some cut through a vacant lot across the street from the school and others hustled down South Michigan Avenue, off the route. Some children crowded into a nearby candy store before scattering away in improvised, and unprotected, walks home. Similar scenes were witnessed at other schools.

"I mean it feels safe as long as the police are out here," Watson said. "But the snow and the ice are going to be the real test. Are they going to be out here then?"

Principal Rhonda Larkin of Haley Elementary Academy in the West Pullman neighborhood found herself pleasantly surprised at how the first day went. Haley was designated to absorb students from the now shuttered West Pullman Elementary, and Larkin had been fearing trouble because the communities around the two schools are home to warring gangs.

But on Monday, there were no fights or complaints of bullying at Haley, Larkin said. And while the school still needs time to tote up how many students from West Pullman were enrolled, Larkin said her school did take in a sizable number of students transferring from other nearby schools, including some that also had closed.

"Nothing happened inside the school," Larkin said, adding that no incidents were reported on walks to school along the designated Safe Passage route. "Everything ran smoothly."

Despite the district's promises about safety, Lakesha Beard kept her daughter Breanna, formerly a student at West Pullman, home on Monday because she feared the girl wouldn't be safe at Haley. On Monday afternoon, Breanna, who should have been finishing her first day of seventh grade, was instead playing with other friends from West Pullman at the playground of their old school.

Breanna said her sister had warned her that West Pullman kids would get "jumped" at Haley.

Beard said she was looking at other schools for her daughter. "I'm not sure what school to enroll her in," she said. "I will enroll her next week."

Tribune reporters Lolly Bowean, Jeff Coen, John Chase, David Heinzmann, David Kidwell, Carlos Sadovi, Jeremy Gorner, John Byrne and Ellen Jean Hirst contributed.

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