Updated 08/26/13 – 11:24 a.m.
CHICAGO (CBS) – A new chapter began for the Chicago Public Schools on Monday, following major budget cuts and the closings of dozens of schools.
The first day of classes began for 400,000 students, after several years of CPS operating on two different calendars – a traditional September-to-June schedule for most schools, and a “year-round” schedule with a much shorter summer break, but more shorter breaks throughout the year.
The new year also means a new school for nearly 13,000 students whose old school was closed this summer, after the Chicago Board of Education voted to close 49 elementary schools and one high school program.
Two of those elementary school closures are being delayed, but with 47 other elementary schools now closed, approximately 12,700 students are attending new schools this fall.
CPS Chief Executive Officer Barbara Byrd-Bennett kicked off her day at John Fiske Elementary School in the West Woodlawn neighborhood, offering words of wisdom, and checking for smooth transitions for the kids heading to their new schools.
“If you work hard, if you keep at it, if you keep studying, there is nothing that you cannot do,” she said.
Fiske now has about 550 students, nearly double its enrollment before it took in students from Sexton Elementary School, which was closed.
Before the students were brought inside, teachers at Fiske showed off their updated classrooms, featuring air conditioning, new computers, and new furniture.
“We’re here for you. Relax. We’re going to get your baby in. We’ll be good,” principal Cynthia Miller said.
Byrd-Bennett planned to visit several schools each day this week to monitor the transition for welcoming schools.
Delores King said she got up before dawn Monday, eager to get her kids off to a good start on the first day of class.
“I woke up at 4 in the morning, like ‘Let’s get it! Time to go!’”
Fiske student Cassius Starks joined Bryd-Bennett at the podium outside school, where she vowed to tutor him, and move him toward graduation.
“Let’s make sure our children get the best education they can get,” Byrd-Bennett said.
Cassius rang opening the bell to kick off the school year at Fiske.
The new school year brings several changes for the district, including full-day kindergarten for every school. In the past, some schools offered only half-day kindergarten. It’s also the second year for CPS’s longer school day and longer school year.
CPS officials have estimated the school closings will save the district $43 million a year in operating costs, and another $56 million a year in capital costs over the next 10 years.
For the first few years, however, much of the savings in operating costs will go to making improvements at the “welcoming schools” that are taking in students from shuttered schools.
One key improvement district officials have touted is air conditioning at all welcoming schools — certain to be a popular addition given temperatures in the low- to mid-90s early this week, with heat indexes reaching the triple digits.
“We’ve got our full school day, our full-day kindergarten,” Byrd-Bennett said.
“In our schools: the laboratories; the libraries; our iPads and laptops have been delivered – they probably won’t be used today, but they’ve been delivered and they’re ready for our children to really be able to have the kind of tools that they need for learning.”
The Chicago Teachers Union, which went to court in a failed effort to stop the school closings, said it will hold the district’s feet to the fire when it comes to the promises it has made about the Safe Passage program, the improvements it pledged to make to welcoming schools, and to offer expanded curricula under the longer school day.
“We will be out at most of the receiving schools today and tomorrow, passing out checklists to parents, and inviting them to monitor all of the promises that CPS has made, to ensure that students really are being kept safe; that they have counselors and social workers – we know there have been massive cuts of these programs, even in receiving schools – that all of the art, music, world language that were promised for a longer day are actually delivered,” CTU staff coordinator Jackson Potter said. “So we have our suspicions that that’s not going to happen, but we want parents to hold the system and the mayor accountable.”
Facing a projected $1 billion deficit, the district slashed classroom spending by $68 million this year, raised property taxes to the limit, and drained $700 million in reserve funds.
To help students get to school on Monday, the CTA offered free rides on its buses and trains, from 5:30 a.m. and 8:30 p.m. CPS students also will receive their new Ventra reduced fare cards at school. Non-CPS students can apply for student riding permits online.
After Monday, students who are 20 or younger will pay 75 cents on school days between 5:30 am and 8:30 p.m. Transfers cost 15 cents for students during those hours.
Because the school closings mean many CPS students will have to cross gang lines to get to their new schools, the city has set up “Safe Passage” routes for all of the so-called “welcoming schools” that are taking in students from closed schools.
Those routes will be staffed by 600 trained “Safe Passage” workers, as well as Chicago police officers, firefighters, other city workers, and hundreds of volunteers from the community.
Byrd-Bennett acknowledged many parents might be worried about their children’s safety as they head to new schools – especially since eight people have been shot along Safe Passage routes in recent weeks.
Those routes were not staffed with safe-passage workers at the time because school had not started.
The most recent shooting along a Safe Passage route was late Sunday night, when a 28-year-old man was shot in the neck in the 1400 block of South Tripp Avenue.
A week ago, five people were shot along a Safe Passage route in the Uptown neighborhood. One victim later died. Two weeks ago, two people were shot along a route in Bronzeville. One victim died in that shooting.
None of the shootings occurred during school hours, or at a time when students likely would have been going to or from school.
Dwayne Truss, with West Siders Against School Closings, said he hopes the Safe Passage program is a success, but he said the shooting on Sunday illustrates the kind of danger many students could face as they walk longer routes to new schools, as a result of the school closings.
“It illuminates the fact that, in our community, that violence is real, and that none of these signs, the Safe Passage workers, are going to be able to stop a bullet,” he said.
Byrd-Bennett sought to reassure parents that the district and the city are doing everything they can to keep kids safe as they go to and from school.
“As a parent, and as a grandmom, I get that, I understand the trepidation, the fear, the anxiety,” she said. “Yet, I want to remind parents that during the school hours, we’re going to make certain that our children have all of the people, adults, around them who need to be to get them to and from school.”
“We are prepared for children coming to and from school to be safe,” she added.
Other changes on the new school calendar include a longer Thanksgiving holiday. Students will have a five-day weekend for Thanksgiving, beginning Wednesday, Nov. 27. The new calendar also eliminated half-days for students when teachers have professional development days.
The last day of school this year will be June 10.