Busy, unfamiliar streets were made a bit friendlier Monday, the first day of school in Chicago, thanks to hundreds of newly hired safety guards. But some parents expressed doubt the effort would protect their children, who now must cross gang boundaries to get to their new classrooms after their old ones closed.
The Safe Passage program guards in neon vests lined city streets in neighborhoods with closed schools, the most visible sign of what's at stake for the nation's third-largest school district, which is struggling academically and financially.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who called Monday "a new beginning" for the district, planned to join students walking to O'Toole Elementary in the West Englewood neighborhood on the city's South Side.
The Chicago Board of Education — hand-picked by Emanuel — voted in May to close about 50 elementary schools and programs, a move Emanuel and schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said would allow the district to improve academics and help pay down a $1 billion budget deficit.
Critics of the school closings said minority students were disproportionately affected and that many students would now have to cross dangerous gang boundaries. Some families sued, but a federal judge refused to halt the plan.
On Monday, concerned parents took time off of work or recruited family members to make sure students arrived at their new schools.
Annie Stovall walked her granddaughter, 9-year-old Kayla Porter, to Gresham Elementary School in the Gresham neighborhood, about 4 miles south of O'Toole Elementary.
Stovall said she's skeptical Chicago's first-day show of force will last.
"I think it's just show-and-tell right now," Stovall said. "Five, six weeks down the road, let's see what's going to happen."
One of the guards in the Gresham neighborhood, 57-year-old Rochelle Nicholson, said their presence is reassuring to students and is needed "for the children's safety."