First week of school brings some success, more questions

September 2, 2013
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After a summer of debates and rallies over how educational quality and safety will be affected with the closure of 49 elementary schools, including four in Austin, class is back in session.

Parents outside Edward K. Ellington School – receiving students from the now-closed Francis Scott Key and Robert Emmet elementary schools – said they have few complaints, if any, after the first full week of class.

Terry Taylor’s son attended Emmet before it closed in June. He said the transition has been smooth so far, and he’s been waiting for a chance to send the 2nd-grader to Ellington.

“It’s one of the top schools, but I’m hoping they can maintain that after bringing in more students,” said Taylor.

He said he didn’t have any issues like long waits or chaos that some parents told the Sun-Times they experienced at Ellington the first day of school.

Evelyn Pate – who had to move five children from Key to Ellington – said she hasn’t had any issues and that CPS registered her children for her after Key closed.

Ellington’s assistant principal declined to comment, citing CPS policy that all communication must go through CPS’ central office.

Chicago Public Schools reported that 93.5 percent of enrolled students district-wide made it to school on Monday, said David Miranda, deputy press secretary for CPS.

Ninety-six percent of 1,057 students from Key, Emmett, Louis Armstrong and Horatio May elementary schools were registered for school as of Aug. 20, according to data provided by the CPS’ Miranda.

And close to 900 of those students were registered at their designated welcoming school, either George Leland, Oscar DePriest or Ellington.

Before the Chicago Board of Education voted to close schools in May, CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett promised welcoming schools would get certain capital improvements, including air-conditioning and iPads for all students.

Welcoming schools will also receive “cosmetic” improvements for the school’s interior, new labs for International Baccalaureate and I-STEM programs, and larger lunchrooms. New technology will be added to support student safety, but plans do not specify what those will be.

Improvements at Leland will cost more than $4 million, which is now housed in May’s building, and DePriest’s plan calls for $490,000, while Ellington’s will cost $800,000.

Ellington and Leland’s upgrades will be completed in December. Improvements at DePriest will wrap up in October.

Another issue has been how children will safely get to their new schools since some of the routes cross gang lines. Some shootings along or near the Safe Passage routes have left parents and community activists worried.

But Safe Passage workers on the Austin routes said things went smoothly last week, said Morris Reed, chief executive officer of the Westside Health Authority, a non-profit that CPS hired to staff the routes. Parents told him that workers have been “energized and enthusiastic.”

Reed said his group looked for workers who live in Austin and have worked in service projects before. Workers from the area can connect with students better and can take leadership over the routes, he said.

Students are mixing from different schools, so Reed said he hopes kids get along as the year progresses. Good relationships will prevent tensions that lead to fights along the routes, he said.

But a fight did break out on Central Avenue – a safe passage route – as students were leaving Ellington Friday afternoon. Lingering students seemed unsure of the details but thought the fight was between some older students and an “outsider” across the street.

The Chicago Police Department was there within seconds because officers were already patrolling the area as part of the Safe Passage program.

“This is just what I’m talking about,” said Dwayne Truss, a West Side organizer and board member of Raise Your Hand for Illinois Education.

He’s worried about seeing violence progress if students are already fighting in front of police during the first week of class.

Kids will smarten up and move away from the Safe Passage route before starting fights, he said.

And some residents are concerned about routes that don’t exist inside the new, widened attendance boundaries for Austin’s welcoming schools.

One intersection not included in a Safe Passage route is the corner of Jackson Boulevard and Central Avenue, near DePriest School. It’s a busy intersection and near “hot spots” for criminal activity, said Truss.

The route on Central Avenue leading to Ellington doesn’t start soon enough, Angela Graham, former chair of Key’s now-defunct Local School Council, said in a previous AustinTalks story.

Tina Chenault, coordinator for the Safe Passage routes for Austin, did not immediately respond to questions about what parents have told her – if anything – about routes not included in Safe Passage.

Chicago Public Schools will continue to take input about routes from the police department and the community, and make any necessary adjustments, said CPS spokesman Miranda.

Some community activists are making plans for the rest of the school year, such as getting more parent support for an elected school board.

Members of Chicago’s Board of Education have been appointed by the mayor since the 1990s when the state legislature passed a law making the CPS board the only one in the state that’s not elected.

The fight for an elected board revived last fall when a question was added to ballots in 327 precincts throughout Chicago. About 87 percent of voters said they’d like to see an elected school board.

Now, Truss said he’s educating parents about their voting rights. He said he’s been encouraging parents to get registered to vote at special town hall meetings. The more people are educated, the more support they’ll have to push for the cause in Springfield, he said.

Truss said that only an elected school board can represent what the community wants for its schools. CPS could not immediately comment on this.

For now, parents like Rodney Johnson with three kids in Ellington, said it’s too early to tell how all these issues will pan out this school year.

“We gotta give it some time to see,” he said.

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