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CPS students nervous, excited on first day at new schools

Security Officer Carol Wiliams welcomes kindergartner Leilani Ruiz 5 De Diego Community Academy Monday. Williams worked as security officer for

Security Officer Carol Wiliams welcomes kindergartner Leilani Ruiz, 5, to De Diego Community Academy on Monday. Williams worked as a security officer for 20 years at Von Humboldt Elementary, which closed in June. | Jessica Koscielniak~Sun-Times

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Updated: September 28, 2013 6:09AM

“Hi Miss Carol!” schoolchildren cried out Monday morning, thrilled to recognize the familiar face of security officer Carol Williams at their new school, Jose De Diego Elementary Community Academy.

“Hello family, I’m so happy to see you,” Williams said, hugging the Alvarez children who used to attend Von Humboldt Elementary school, where she had spent the last 26 years. On her last day at that school, she sobbed. “Me too,” one little boy told her.

The Alvarez kids, ages 5 to 13, walked more than six blocks from their home in Monday’s heat.

“They made it, but they were tired,” said Anna Alvarez, who accompanied her own three children plus her four younger siblings.

Across Chicago Public Schools, Monday marked a slew of changes. All 400,000 students, elementary and high school alike, reported to class on the same day — and before Labor Day.

And 53 schools had new Safe Passage routes to help children traverse longer distances, often across gang lines, to new schools after CPS shut down a record number of schools .

De Diego’s returning young veterans turned up an hour early — at 7:45 a.m. — when the bell always rang before.

CPS Board of Education Vice President Jesse Ruiz rang the morning bell. During the school-closing approval process in May, he voted only against the decision to close Von Humboldt Elementary and de Duprey Elementary schools and funnel those children into De Diego. Now that the consolidation’s complete, he was pleased at the energy he saw, saying it was “like Christmas.”

At least 12,700 children whose schools closed for good in June entered a totally new setting. Thousands more met an influx of new classmates.

“I’m going to make some friends with them,” 9-year-old Jalen Harris said of the new students who came to his school, De Diego, on Monday.

The district said 91 percent of children whose schools closed were already re-enrolled in the district . Of those, 78 percent were enrolled in the receiving school CPS had recommended. All the receiving schools were promised air conditioning and a Safe Passage route, a school library and iPads for every third- to eighth-grader.

At De Diego, the district’s largest “welcoming school,” textbooks hadn’t yet arrived in most classrooms, nor had the promised iPads, though Principal Alice Vera said all those supplies were already in the school building and awaited distribution.

Air conditioning was installed and working in classrooms on a day that hit 92 degrees, but in some rooms, including Jumeck Smith’s classroom of fifth-graders, kids had a hard time hearing each other as they read letters aloud they had written to themselves laying out their goals for the year.

Alicia Heltmach, one of the handful of Von Humboldt teachers who found jobs at De Diego, also had to speak up to counter the air-conditioning noise as she read “First Day Jitters.”

“Since this was my very first day at this school,” she told the second-graders, whom she called “my Diego friends,” “I was a little scared too because I didn’t know what to expect.”

So were 7-year-olds Gustavo Linares and Kavion Bickhem, who wrote about how they felt Monday morning — “nervis” — sounding out the word as directed.

Gustavo, who went to De Diego last year, was nervous “that I’m not going to make any friends.” Kavion, a Von Humboldt transfer seated across from Gustavo, feared he would get in trouble, but once situated in his room he improved to “a little happy.”

Some Von Humboldt parents skipped De Diego altogether, despite the extra equipment and fix-up work at the “welcoming school” and opted for Moos Elementary instead. Catalina Bota said she did not want her 7-year-old daughter to have to cross Western Avenue —which she called a dangerous gang boundary — to get to De Diego. Nor did she want to pay $35 in school fees at De Diego.

Bota insisted that she never enrolled her child anywhere before trying on Friday to get her into Moos, and she wondered how her child ended up on De Diego’s roster. On Monday morning, as De Diego parents told their kids to smile for first-day photos, Bota’s daughter sat in Moos’ office with her grandmother. Bota had to show up at De Diego, in the small gym — one of the school’s few spaces without air conditioning, to get her daughter transferred to Moos.

“I never signed enrollment papers because I wanted a choice,” she said.

CPS couldn’t yet say Monday how many more children enrolled at De Diego — or anywhere in the district for that matter. Numbers won’t be available until at least Tuesday.

On Tuesday, 110 Chicago Police recruits will graduate from the police academy, and they’ll be assigned to Safe Passage routes Wednesday.

That’s a problem, said Fraternal Order of Police President Mike Shields.

“When recruits graduate from the academy, they historically go through three four-week cycles with a field training officer. Now, they’re sending them right out on the street with no field experience with a seasoned veteran whatsoever,” Shields said.

Chicago Police Department spokesman Adam Collins called the decision to bypass the field-training regimen “nothing new.” He said the 110 newest graduates “will go through field training in the near future.”

The cast of thousands guaranteeing the safety of Chicago Public School students displaced by school closings also included more than 50 Chicago Fire Department companies, too. They were assigned to stand along the routes for an hour in the morning and 90 minutes at night to make kids feel safe while walking longer distances down unfamiliar streets, sometimes through rival gang turf.

“That’s roughly half the force,” said Tom Ryan, president of the Chicago Firefighters Union Local 2. “They’re out on street corners with their equipment. In the event that a run does come through, they just respond from their respective corners.”

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