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Amid Uncertainty, Parents, Students, Officials Welcome New School Year

By  Josh McGhee and Ted Cox | August 26, 2013 6:48am | Updated on August 27, 2013 10:30am

  Routes to school, class sizes and combined student bodies will all be analyzed in the coming weeks.
First Day of CPS School Year
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CHICAGO — It was a much-anticipated day, and for a lot of the wrong reasons.

After months of hand-wringing following the Chicago Board of Education's decision to close 50 schools, requiring about a quarter of the city's 403,000 students to enter new schools, and as parents and activists feared everything from violence to budget cuts, the first day of school was, by and large, uneventful.

"I made new friends and learned how to write my name," said Katherine Johnson, a kindergartner at Harvard Elementary in Grand Crossing. "We colored in our books, too."

With students from nearby Yale Elementary now attending Harvard, the student population has increased to about 500.

City leaders were pleased with how Monday's return to classrooms turned out, with CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett calling it "a very smooth opening for over 400,000 students."

 A bus brings students to Mayo Elementary on the last day of school. It's known as Wells Elementary this school year.
A bus brings students to Mayo Elementary on the last day of school. It's known as Wells Elementary this school year.
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DNAinfo/Erica Demarest

On WTTW-Channel 11's "Chicago Tonight" show Monday, Byrd-Bennett said there were few surprises, besides the number of people willing to help children get to their schools and the high number of students enrolling for class at the last minute.

One of the most closely scrutinized aspects of the new school year was the district's Safe Passage program. CPS teamed with several city agencies and organizations to expand it, designating routes to school that could otherwise be treacherous due to gang violence.

Byrd-Bennett said the Safe Passage program will remain robust throughout the year.

"We think the first day of school is every day. From now until the last day of school," Byrd-Bennett said.

No incidents were reported along the routes as parents walked their kids to the new schools and the rest of the city's public school students returned to their regular schools.

"I got it from here, ma," 9-year-old Demetrius Hopkins told his mother, Tanaka Bell, 40, after she walked him safely to school in West Garfield Park

"Since he feels comfortable and excited, I feel comfortable," his mother said. "I think I was more scared than he was, but since he was OK, I was OK."

While student seemed excited about starting school on Monday at William Ryder Math and Science Elementary School, 8716 S. Wallace St., parents worried about the transition for their special education students, and others hoped a strong police presence would remain in force beyond the first day.

Parent Tassie White said a school bus never showed to pick up her autistic 12-year-old daughter Sherrell Monday morning.

"Already there seems to be confusion with CPS because I had to bring her to school since the bus never showed up," White said.

In Logan Square, Josefina Ortiz said a promised one-on-one caretaker for her 10-year-old autistic son, Salomon, never showed at Lowell Elementary.

"I don't know what happened," said Ortiz. "When I talked to the principal last week, she said [the caregiver] would be hired, but when I went there — nobody."

CPS officials did not immediately comment on either situation.

Parents welcomed a beefed-up police presence, which was augmented by the Ryder's principal, Aaron Rucker, a Chicago police officer on leave.

"Let's hope it stays that way all year long," said Mary Lasley, an Auburn Gresham resident whose 12-year-old son, Dangelo Lasley, is in the seventh grade.

Still, parents were hesitant to declare the rest of the year will be problem-free.

“We’ll see. It’s hard to tell, these kids are unpredictable,” said Reggie Cannon, whose son was returning for the seventh grade at Dulles and whose daughter was starting fifth.

At Chopin Elementary Monday morning, much of the tension surrounding the closure of Lafayette Elementary was gone, although some vowed to still fight.

Kids ran around greeting each other and some tumbled on the playground equipment while staff stood outside the building at 2450 W. Rice St. to "make sure we have a lot of faces and feet on the street," one administrator said.

But Rousemary Vega, the outspoken mother who who refused to leave Lafayette Elementary School with her family on the last day of school in June, stood out front passing out flyers about a boycott planned for Wednesday afternoon: "Our fight's not over," she said.

Parents also were concerned about ballooning class sizes as welcoming schools took in new students.

Byrd-Bennett said she visited "six or seven" schools Monday and "didn't see any class sizes that were overenrolled," due to schools merging or budget cuts.

In Uptown, parents said their fears were assuaged after hearing from their kids.

"I was looking for if the classrooms were crowded, and her classroom is not crowded, there's not even 30 in there," said Glady Lymore, whose 9-year-old granddaughter Tiara Lynch, is attending Joseph Brennemann Elementary.

Before the day kicked off, Wendy Katten, director of the citywide parent organization Raise Your Hand, warned, "There's just a lot of unknowns right now."

After a bitter teachers' strike, the largest school closure in history and steep budget cuts, many students returned to schools with fewer teachers, fewer librarians and other employees, even though many schools will have more students. Meanwhile, many students face longer and, possibly more perilous, journeys to school.

The School Board voted to close the 50 schools in May because they operated below building capacity.

Although the first morning went smoothly, how well the welcoming schools will handle the influx of students during the rest of the year remains to be seen. Brandon Johnson, chairman of the Chicago Teachers Union's black caucus, said members of his organization will be fanning out across the city to "these merging, colliding schools and make sure what has been promised to our children will be delivered on that first day." 

While issues surrounding closures and new routes to school directly impact just a fraction of the district's 400,000 students, the entire district is expecting less classroom money this year.

If approved at Wednesday's board meeting as expected, budget cuts will leave schools citywide with $68 million less to work with, which has forced schools to slash teaching positions as well as programs such as artband and business classes.

In all, 3,500 educators got the ax from the district, although officials said some could be hired back.

It's premature to say how class sizes will be affected by the cuts, but Johnson said he expects overcrowding to be an issue both within classrooms and the buildings themselves.

After the previous school year during which protesters regularly targeted monthly board meetings, the district's biggest critics hope to push for accountability both in schools and the community.

The CTU and other organizations are pushing for the passage of a state bill that will allow residents to vote for Chicago's School Board rather than have the mayor pick members.

Jitu Brown of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization has gathered a couple dozen people to form "accountability committees" to work with local school councils throughout the city.

The goal is to conduct classroom observations, schoolwide surveys and other measures to document how children are learning, Brown said.

Brown also is spearheading a boycott scheduled for Wednesday calling for parents to keep their children home and asking protesters to stay away from the board meeting where the year's budget will be voted on.

But even with those plans, Brown said there's some doubt about what impact it could make.

"There's a limit to what we can do," Brown said. "That's the best we can do in a situation where we haven't been making the decisions."

That didn’t stop some activists from trying to make their voices heard Monday. Outside Cather Elementary, where Mayor Rahm Emanuel was expected to walk with kids after school was out, a small group changed “Run Rahm, Run,” after the mayor evidently skipped out on the event.

Ellyson Carter, of Action Now, was unapologetic as he accepted credit for uprooting the mayor's plan — though he said the derailment wasn't intentional.

"I didn't know what to expect," he said, loudspeaker still in hand Monday afternoon. "I wanted to confront the mayor with some questions about budget cuts and [Tax Increment Financing] money ... but evidently I didn't get to.

"It's typical Rahm," he added. "He isn't going to allow the community to ask him direct questions."

Contributing: Wendell Hutson, Sam Cholke, Chloe Riley, Victoria Johnson, Alex Parker, Adeshina Emmanuel, Darryl Holliday