With only two weeks to go before the opening bell rings, CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett and a team of other city officials announced the so-called Safe Passage routes and tried to assure parents and the public that everything is under control as 13,000-plus students transition to new schools.

“We are on track to have a fantastic first day and a banner school year,” she said.

Byrd-Bennett said that 90 percent of students from closed schools are expected at the welcoming ones. Later, her staff revised that figure, saying that 90 percent were enrolled, with 80.5 percent in the designated welcoming school. Such a high percentage of students in the designated receiving school would be far more than in previous school closings.

In addition to providing Safe Passage patrols, CPS spent the summer renovating welcoming schools and provided extra money for them to enhance their academic programs.

But Bryd-Bennett allowed for the fact that some families may change their mind by the opening of school. She said she will have workers out at schools to enroll students and is willing to consider different Safe Passage routes if a welcoming school doesn’t wind up with a lot of students from the shuttered schools that were supposed to send students.

“I do not think that will happen,” she said at a briefing on Friday.

The Safe Passage routes are streets and areas where community members, paid by CPS, will patrol and keep an eye on children as they walk to and from their new schools. Some of the routes are from closed schools, while others take into account where students live. 

Though there are 49 schools closing, there are 53 routes, including routes for welcoming schools and schools that will be co-locating with another school, according to CPS.

CPS has posted maps on their website that parents can access.  West and East Garfield Park and Englewood, especially, are slated to have a heavy presence of Safe Passage workers, as several schools in their areas are closing.

600 workers hired

For the past couple years, many of the neighborhood high schools have had Safe Passage programs, which were born out of former CEO Ron Huberman’s initiative called Culture of Calm. CPS officials credit Safe Passage with reducing the number of incidents that involve school children.

Originally, CPS officials said that in mid-July, routes would be finalized, but gave no explanation for the delay even as parents and others began to express anxiety. Safety and Security Chief Jadine Chou emphasized that district officials took pains to make sure they were providing patrols for the correct streets. She said officials hosted meetings at schools where they shared proposed routes and got feedback from community members and parents.

About 600 workers have been hired and, starting next week, they will be trained on things like how to de-escalate fights and how to spot trouble.  Chou also said they will each be fingerprinted and have background checks before they take to the streets.

Chou’s staff, with the police department, will train each group of Safe Passage workers. The district has hired 19 community organizations to administer the program.

 Chou said starting Friday, the district will be doing robocalls, sending e-mails and sending a package to parents informing them of the routes and of other information they need as they transition to new schools.

In addition to Safe Passage workers, wearing yellow vests, children walking along these routes will be greeted by yellow signs, which have begun to spring up all over the city. Pat Harney, first deputy commissioner from the Chicago Department of Transportation, said the signs were to alert people they were in areas that would elicit harsher penalties for carrying a gun or other weapons.

Earlier this summer, the City Council passed a measure that would increase penalties for guns, ammunition and other “dangerous weapons” on Safe Passage routes and near schools during daylight hours when children are present.

While the officials tried to underscore the point that they are taking precautions to make the hikes safe, they also said they were looking to the community to report trouble and keep a watch on children.

Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy said that community police or CAPS workers have been knocking on doors, asking residents to come onto their porches during the times students go to and from school. He said 1800 residents agreed.

However, he acknowledged that should something go wrong the city officials will be blamed.

“When violence occurs, we are held accountable,” he said. “But this is nothing new. Children crossing gang lines to get to school is nothing new.”

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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