First day brings questions of safety, academics, resources

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As 12,000 students from closed schools made their way to new buildings Monday morning, much of the focus was on whether they would be safe. In addition to Safe Passage workers, police officers walked streets, Streets and Sanitation trucks circled around and fire trucks reportedly were stationed strategically. Not surprisingly, few incidents were reported Monday morning.

“My first report card will be Monday,” said Tom Tyrrell, the retired Marine charged with managing the logistics of the biggest school closure in U.S. history. “But there will be other report cards to come.”

Indeed, the larger questions about whether students remain safe and whether their new schools are better, as promised, won’t be answered for many months. Adding to the disruptions, the district has laid off 3,000 staff members to help close a budget deficit.

Among other things, parents across the district are worried about increased class sizes.

Schools designated as welcoming schools received extra money to smooth the transition for students from closed schools. Most welcoming schools—36 of the 56—had students from more than one closing school enrolled.

However, data released by CPS on Friday shows that, while the majority of students from closed schools enrolled in welcoming schools, at least 1200 chose other schools—which did not get extra resources this year, according to the CPS data. (The exact number is unclear because CPS redacted the specific count when it was less than 10 students.)

About 10 “non-welcoming” schools received more than 30 students, and another 200 schools got at least one student from a closed school.

As of late August, about 35 closed schools had at least some students whose destination was undetermined,  and an additional 35 saw some transfer out of the district, but only one—Owens Elementary School in West Pullman—had 10 or more leave the district.

These numbers are likely to change over the next few weeks, as some parents will change their mind or show up at a school having not enrolled their child anywhere. First-day attendance figures also may be off, as school started before Labor Day—which is unusual in Chicago. .

Tyrrell said one of the first tests he faces is whether “every child feels welcome.” Going into school buildings Monday morning, many  students told Catalyst they were excited, and some parents said they felt the move was good.

But at some schools, parents expressed continued dismay.

Morning confusion

At the new Melody School, which is located in the old Delano building, a mother walked out and said she was not happy. “I am scratching my head,” said Ericka Baker. “My baby has to go to a school that is on probation while Delano was not on probation. This is a bunch of bs.”

Community members and parents were confounded by CPS’ decision to keep the Melody staff, even though Delano’s students were technically higher performing. One suspicion is that CPS officials wanted the Melody principal to stay on. But three weeks ago, she left.

Chip Johnson, deputy chief of the Garfield-Humboldt Park Network, said she took a new position, but that he did not know where. He said everything was going smoothly, countering parents who lingered after the school bell, complaining.

At Brennemann in Uptown, a grandmother with three children walked into the school and then walked straight out because she didn’t like the principal’s attitude. Stewart Elementary was consolidated with Brennemann.

“I’m going to get them somewhere, and it’s going to be done today,” she said, though she noted that homeschooling the youngsters was a fall-back. 

Parents gathered as well to talk about the changes at the welcoming school. Ieshia Thomason, whose daughter was in 2nd grade, said the new students seemed to be settling in well.

But some felt the increased number of students had led to disorganization; they complained about having to drop off children outside, rather than being able to see their classrooms.

At the new Ward Elementary, students milled around for several minutes after the day was supposed to start. Some parents said it was 8:21 before the staff began ushering children inside. For the next hour, cars pulled up, and students made their way in.

A couple Ward staffers stood in the main vestibule with lists of students and home rooms. They had a steady line of children and mothers asking them where they were supposed to go.

“It was a hot mess,” said one mother. “How can teachers send children to places when they don’t know their way around? I am going to give them a year to get it together.”

Because Ward moved into Ryerson, she said the old Ryerson parents had to help students find their way to their classrooms.

Some former Ryerson parents said they didn’t know exactly when school started, though another mother noted that she got several robocalls from the principal.

Rosalind Jackson said she felt the new Ward was disorganized. Jackson met her daughter’s homeroom teacher, but was disturbed to find out that only three Ryerson students were in her daughter’s classroom.

Jackson wondered out loud how long it would be before the principal held a meeting for parents. Some of the more active Ryerson parents said they did not feel particularly welcome at Ward and that they had not had much interaction with the principal over the summer.

Ward Principal Relanda Hobbs said she did not have time for an interview Monday.

Continued safety concerns

Ward’s head security guard said he thinks that the year will go smoothly and will wind up better than average. “We just have to keep parents and outsiders out and focus on the children,” said the security guard, who did not want to be identified by name.

The Ward security guard said he felt as though the extra police and city workers were a bit excessive. “It sends the wrong message,” he said. “The school should be an institution of learning. We should not feel as though we are under siege.”

However, there is a garbage-strewn vacant lot across the street from the new Ward and an unsecured abandoned building next to the lot. These were the conditions despite repeated promises from city officials that they were cleaning up the areas around the welcoming schools.

On the way home from dropping a child off at Disney Magnet School, Telisa Johnson said her biggest concern is “kids being affected by the gangs and walking through these other neighborhoods because their schools closed.”

 Johnson added that a recent shooting in Uptown along a “quote-unquote Safe Passage” route added to her worries. Her children used to walk past there regularly, she said, “but not any longer.”

 At the new Melody, the issue of safety was top on everyone’s mind. Early Sunday morning, a former Delano student was shot and killed about a block from the school. Baker said the 14-year-old boy, named Lavander Hearnes, was her daughter’s friend. The boy was to start high school on Monday.

Safety between Melody and Delano in East Garfield Park has been a big concern since it became clear that CPS was planning to close Delano. The Chicago Teachers Union took elected officials on a walk between the two schools. Meanwhlie, congressmen Bobby Rush and Danny Davis ducked into an abandoned building and remarked on the bad conditions.

Board member Mahalia Hines said she also walked between the buildings and came away thinking, “I would not send my child.”

After these concerns were raised, CPS officials decided to provide bus service between the schools, though the distance was too short to be technically eligible.

On Monday morning, two buses, one at 7:15 and one at 7:45 took about 20 students from the old Melody to the new one, which is in the Delano building. However, safe passage workers said “quite a few” students walked. Aniyah Bray and her twin brothers, dressed in pressed light blue polos, walked up to the desolate school at about 8:50 in the morning.

“You here for the bus?” called out LaShuna Johnson, a safe passage worker and the lone person in front of the old Melody school. “It left already.”

Hearing that, the boys turned around, telling their sister that the fastest way to the new Melody school building was to head down Van Buren. Johnson added that safe passage workers are along Van Buren, but not the other streets. “Go that way,” she told the three.

Though safe passage workers were at the corners, Aniyah noted that the distance between them on the long city blocks seemed far.

“I am a little bit nervous,” she said, “because we don’t know what can happen.”

 This story has been updated to correct the spelling of the names of Brennemann and Stewart elementary schools.