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Chicago Leaders Report Smooth First Day as Closure Concerns Linger

Chicago

In what was expected to be a tense transition to a new school year, 403,000 students in Chicago returned to classes today in a district shrunken by school closings, beset with budget cuts, and anxious about addressing safety concerns.

But after the morning's commute to school, education and city leaders reported a relatively smooth opening day despite the more than 12,000 students who are attending different schools in the wake of the district's wave of closures earlier this year.

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Still, there was plenty of confusion and concern to go around.

Cheryl Holmes, a substitute teacher, showed up at what she thought was Fiske Elementary School in the Woodlawn neighborhood of Chicago's South Side this morning ready to work. She rang the doorbell, peered through the window, and then paused: It was eerily quiet for the first day of school.

Though this building had indeed been Joseph E. Fiske Elementary School last year, the school Ms. Holmes was searching for is now around the corner and up the street. Students who had been at the school Ms. Holmes mistakenly reported to now attend school in the building formerly known as Sexton Elementary School—which has been renamed Fiske.

"That would have been nice to know," Ms. Holmes said.

As the city's students returned to school this morning, much of Chicago's attention was focused on schools like the new Fiske, one of the "welcoming schools" designated to host students from those that were shuttered earlier this summer. The district has focused a months-long campaign on easing the transition.

Chicago's school chief, Barbara Byrd Bennett, greeted the Fiske community with optimism. A student, Cassius, rang the school's bell to mark the beginning of what Byrd-Bennett declared would be a "great school year."

"As a parent and former principal, I know the first day of school is critical to student success, as it helps set the tone for the entire school year," she said. Byrd-Bennett encouraged families to prioritize attendance this year.

As a receiving school, Fiske is home to a new science lab and air conditioning as well as a few hundred new students. Carol Branch, the grandmother of three students at the school, said she was not worried about the merging of students from new neighborhoods. She said that she hoped that the closings meant the school would get and use more technology than it had had last year. "The change should be good," she said.

Safety concerns have been at the forefront of the controversy and opposition to the large-scale shutdown of underenrolled elementary schools. The closings were concentrated in low-income, predominantly African-American areas, many of which have been plagued with violence in recent years. In response to concerns about students having to walk across gang lines, the Chicago district expanded its Safe Passage program and hired 600 new community members to work two-hour shifts at the beginning and end of the school day. The program now employs 1,200 people in the city.

Branch, whose grandchildren remained in the same building this year even as the school's name changed from Sexton to Fiske, said most parents in this neighborhood walk their elementary schoolers to school each morning anyway.

Parent Tunyona Frazier said that she wasn't convinced that the Safe Passage workers will be able to prevent violence. Many police officers also lined the streets as students walked to school this morning.

The problems that the Safe Passage program set out to address were starkly apparent this summer, as multiple shootings have occurred along Safe Passage routes.

As Byrd-Bennett ended her remarks at Fiske, parent Howard Moody was open but skeptical.

"She said 'a good school DAY,' but she should have said a good school YEAR,'" said Moody. He said parents in the area were concerned that attention would fade after this first week. "Once all the cameras are gone, it'll be back to how it was," he said. "It can't just be a day," he said.

Photo credit: Safety Guard Renee Green high-fives Demari Hill, 5, as she heads to Gresham Elementary School with her parents Destiny and Anthony Hill on her first day of kindergarten classes on Monday in Chicago. Thousands of students will walk newly designated "Safe Passage" routes after CPS announced in May it would close about 50 schools and programs. Workers hired to help students get to and from school safely will be stationed along those routes, as well as police, firefighters and even public library security guards.
--M. Spencer Green/AP

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