PI Original Ellyn Fortino Monday August 26th, 2013, 1:30pm

West Side CPS Welcoming School Sees ‘Smooth Transition’ On First Day Of Classes

Oscar DePriest Elementary School on Chicago’s West Side was bustling this morning as hundreds of returning and new students from recently-closed schools began their first day of classes. Progress Illinois was there to see how the morning went.

Oscar DePriest Elementary School on Chicago’s West Side was bustling this morning as hundreds of returning and new students from recently-closed schools began their first day of classes.

DePriest, located in the Austin community, is one of the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) 51 designated “welcoming schools” equipped with new Safe Passage routes meant to keep kids safe as they travel to and from their new schools.

The West Side welcoming school, at 139 S. Parkside Ave., is primarily taking in new students from nearby Robert Emmet Elementary, which was one of 48 underutilized elementary schools that closed this summer due to the school district’s reported $1 billion budget deficit.

Lisa Anderson, who has three grandchildren returning to DePriest, said the first day of school appeared to be a smooth transition for neighborhood students thus far.

“But what might come of tomorrow, I have no idea,” she said this morning outside the school. “It’s going to be rough on these kids, because they’re going to a new school ... and they have to go through different neighborhoods. It’s crazy. Their safety is what counts first.”

Tesha Cochran has a fourth-grade son at DePriest and says it remains to be seen whether the new arrangement at the school is successful. Overall, she's relieved DePriest did not close. Her son is autistic, and Cochran said it would have been "devastating" for him if he had to attend an unfamiliar school.

Lauren Middleton, a parent of three students who previously attended the now closed Horatio May Elementary Community Academy, she said she’s not upset that her kids were forced to change schools this year.

“I think (DePriest) is a better school anyway for them to attend,” she said. 

That being said, Middleton and other parents who dropped off their kids this morning said they are concerned about bigger class sizes at the school. 

“I hope (CPS) can get the budget together,” Middleton said. “We need teachers already ... It’s a lot of students to one teacher, and that’s going to be a problem.”

The Chicago Board of Education will vote on CPS' $5.6 billion proposed budget, which includes a $68 million cut to classroom spending, at its monthly meeting Wednesday. Some 3,000 school employees across the district have already been laid off this summer as part of the record-breaking number of school closings and individual school budget cuts.

Middleton said DePriest’s Principal Minnie Watson recently told her that an average of 34 students would be assigned to most of DePriest's classrooms this year. But that's too many students in Middleton's opinion.

Watson, who was directing students this morning as they arrived at school, declined to be interviewed for this story but told Progress Illinois that students and teachers “we’re going to have a great day.” In an interview with Catalyst Chicago back in June, Watson said DePriest expected to take in a little more than 150 students from Emmet as well as three or four of its teachers.

Throughout the district's school-closing process parents were also worried that students from shuttered schools would have to cross gang boundaries and pass through other unsafe conditions to get to their new building. In an effort to quell those concerns, the district expanded its Safe Passage program by $7.7 million this year and doubled the number of route workers from 600 to 1,200.

Signs that designated DePriest’s new Safe Passage route were posted along a one-block stretch of Central Avenue near Adams Street directly behind the school. But no route monitors were present along this particular Safe Passage stretch Monday morning when school started.

Two Safe Passage workers in neon vests were positioned, however, just down the street at the busy intersection of Central Avenue and Madison Street. Emmet, which sits vacant (pictured below to the right), is just east of the intersection at the corner of Madison Street and Pine Avenue. 

Jena Smith, a Safe Passage worker with the Westside Health Authority, was stationed in front of Emmet.

In total, about a dozen Safe Passage workers with the Westside Health Authority were on site this morning along DePriest’s Safe Passage route, Smith said. As part of Smith’s duties, she said she doesn’t walk children to school but instead stays in her spot to monitor students as they travel along the busy stretch of Madison Street and down Pine Avenue, a side street.

But regardless where the new Safe Passage workers are positioned, Cochran said there is no way she’d let her fourth-grade son walk to school alone. She’s not too “keen” on the neighborhood and said it's dangerous.

One person was murdered along DePriest’s Safe Passage route back in July near the 5600 block of West Washington Street, according to a recent WBEZ analysis of violent crimes near the newly-designated Safe Passage routes. Three aggravated batteries involving a handgun also occurred along the route this summer, WBEZ’s analysis shows.

Anderson said she was “comforted” to see two Safe Passage workers this morning as she made her way to DePriest, but she added that it’s going to be “chaos” for the dozen or so DePriest Safe Passage workers to keep all the students safe. She suggested that more parents who have the time should volunteer as a route guard so there’s even more protection for students.

Ella Sutton, whose second-grade daughter is returning to DePriest, said the district previously faced an underutilization crisis, which is why schools had to close, but now classrooms are overcrowded.

“I really just hope that they will (re)open up the schools, because now I heard on the news today that some of the schools don’t have air conditioning,” she said. “Why close schools down when the schools you’re transferring them to don’t have air conditioners? It’s a safety hazard.”

Chiquilla Smith, a parent of two returning DePriest students, said she was shocked by the large number of students arriving to DePriest Monday.

“I pray for the teachers,” she said. “Hopefully it works. It’s going to be hard. That’s a lot of kids."

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