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CPS releases ‘Safe Passage’ routes in school consolidation program

Students walk through vacant lot their way Kohn Elementary School April 26 2013. Students from Kohn will be welcomed Lavizzo

Students walk through a vacant lot on their way to Kohn Elementary School on April 26, 2013. Students from Kohn will be welcomed to Lavizzo Elementary School this fall. | Jessica Koscielniak~Sun-Times

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Updated: September 10, 2013 6:32AM

Some Chicago aldermen reacted with criticism, others with praise as Chicago Public Schools officials on Friday publicly released the routes they say will ensure the safety of thousands of kids walking unfamiliar sidewalks to their newly assigned schools when classes begin in less than three weeks.

Six hundred newly hired safety workers in yellow vests will be posted along the routes from the areas around closing schools to the welcoming schools.

“As a teacher and as a principal I know that a child shouldn’t be sitting in my classroom or my school worried about whether or not they’re going to get to and from school safely. They should be worried about whether they’re going to pass my class,” CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett told the Sun-Times.

School starts Aug. 26, but Byrd-Bennett is sure the newly hired employees will receive training and be in place by then.

“These routes will be ready Day One,” she said.

She argues that CPS isn’t starting from scratch. The new routes are part of a program that has already been in place in schools that needed it.

But to critics of the record school closings — which saw 48 elementary schools shuttered and nearly 13,000 children moved to new schools — it’s simply not enough time.

“It’s so unfortunate the way CPS always seems to do things at the last minute,” said Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis. “These are plans that should have been in place before they even announced school closings. I’m very worried about what’s going to happen when schools starts . . . that safe passage isn’t particularly safe.”

Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd) said he’s seen flaws in the program.

When Fioretti met with CPS security chief Jadine Chou recently, she showed him three “Safe Passage” routes under consideration for Cather Elementary School on the West Side. Fioretti pointed out that one route went right through an intersection notorious for drug dealing. Fioretti says Chou told him only two routes would be finalized, and that she would ax the bad route.

“But lo and behold, yellow “Safe Passage” signs were erected along all three routes,” Fioretti said. “One hand doesn’t know what the other hand’s doing right now.”

Ald. Willie Cochran (20th) was asked Friday whether he’s satisfied with the Safe Passage routes in his South Side ward, which has three school closings and one so-called “turn-around” school where the students stay in place, but all of the adults are replaced.

“No,” he said. “In some very high-traffic locations, streets have not been marked adequately with appropriate signage in place to curb traffic and speeds.”

“One route in particular—from Michigan [Ave.] to Calumet—is marked right in front of a construction site where Norfolk & Southern Railroad is doing construction. It’s an absolutely dangerous site. I intend to be on the phone with CPS today to point those things out.”

But Cochran said, “Overall, with the responsible teams that have been put in place to provide Safe Passage to children in the 20th Ward, I think they’ll be able to deliver those services adequately.”

Another alderman, Howard Brookins (21st), chairman of the City Council’s Black Caucus, has only one school closing in his South Side ward: Garrett Morgan Elementary, and the plan he’s seen looks solid.

Brookins said he was shown the Safe Passage route that Morgan students would be taking to their new school, Ryder Elementary, which is “less than two blocks away” from Morgan.

“Overall, I thought it was a sound plan and they said they would tweak it, if need be, going forward. At least in my ward, I think they’re ready,” Brookins said.

“There has been some nefarious activity around that school [Ryder] at night around Lowe Street. People hanging out on the street, purported drug sales. We put a camera up several years ago, and it seemed to calm down somewhat. But I told them that would be the street I would pay attention to as opposed to some of the other streets.”

Brookins noted that, before Morgan opened, kids in the area went to either Ryder or Gresham elementary.

“Before the overcrowding, those were the two schools before kids went to naturally, so they’re not walking a whole long way out of the way to get to the receiving school,” he said.

Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) also has only one school closing in his South Side ward. It will force students at shuttered Yale Elementary to travel about five blocks to Harvard Elementary.

“The Safe Passage route that’s posted is on main thoroughfares, and children typically don’t take that route to school. Children wander. They walk through neighborhoods and side-streets,” Sawyer said.

“My only concern is that children get to school safely, wherever they walk…I’m okay with it. Sometimes, I just wonder when we do something like that, are we saying the other routes are not safe?”

Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) said he hasn’t had time to closely study Safe Passage routes for the three school closings in his West Side ward.

But he credited CPS with “putting forth a good effort” — by hiring “people from the community who know the kids” and are in a better position to protect them.

“In one instance, they may have a bus picking kids up and taking them from one area to the other because it’s a little far,” he said.

Burnett said he has not yet heard any complaints from parents about the Safe Passage routes. But, he’s anticipating complaints.

“My main concern is the little babies going across the street because some of the streets are major streets, like Madison Street, Western,” he said.

“Also going past some of those areas where you have some of our dysfunctional people who may just drink and hang out. I’m concerned about kids walking past them. What I’ve been encouraging is for them to hire some of the parents whose children go to the school who will just naturally make sure their kids are safe.”

The City Council held a hearing Friday on the CPS budget, and the issue of safe passage issue came up, in light of the shuttered schools.

Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) warned those closed schools would end being “boarded up” and unsafe.

“You know what happens to boarded-up schools. They’re dangerous — and Safe Passage is not gonna help,” Waguespack said.

Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy on Thursday echoed Byrd-Bennett’s sentiments that officials aren’t starting from scratch, saying: “It’s not a new concept in the city of Chicago for school kids to cross gang lines on their way to school. Kids have been doing it for quite some time even when the schools were open. So this is really something we’ve been doing for a long time, we’ve gotten better at it over time.”

Instead, police are looking at this as “an opportunity to really expand our community policing efforts,” he said, adding that CAPS officers going door-to-door have signed up nearly 1,800 adult volunteers to help be eyes and ears along the “Safe Passage” routes.

Chou said her office talks to police every morning to determine potential hotspots that could require extra police patrols or a change in the “Safe Passage” route.

“We’re very nimble on that,” she said.

Chou says her troops will be prepared for the first day of school.

“We absolutely will be ready,” she said.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel said all city departments will have an “oar in the water.”

Emanuel recalled searing the importance of preparing the routes into the brains of his department heads at a meeting a few months ago: “I said, ‘This is not Barbara’s deal; every one of you are on the hook.”

To any employees not taking it seriously, the mayor said he had a simple message: “You’ll have me to deal with.”

Other city agencies have in fact been busy, officials said.

To date, 14 buildings have been demolished and nine are on the list to be destroyed, more than 250 vacant lots have been cleaned, and more than 2,000 graffiti markings have been cleaned, among several other services, according to a city spokesman.

Parents will be getting calls and letters with more information, officials said.

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