Committee for Children Blog

Chicago: A First Day of School Like No Other

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By Allison Wedell Schumacher

Making the transition to a new school is never easy. But imagine the challenge of making that transition because your school was actually shut down. Imagine the questions flooding your mind: How will I get to my new school? Will the kids there like me and be nice to me? Will I fit in?

Thousands of children and their families in Chicago have been asking these questions and more in the wake of Chicago Public Schools’ (CPS) 49 school closings at the end of the 2012-13 school year. Fortunately, CPS has been working to address the very same questions, and they’ve come up with some creative and innovative answers. For starters, the 49 schools that are taking in students from the closed schools have been deemed “Welcoming Schools,” and CPS is trying its best to make sure they live up to the moniker.

There and back again

In the fall of 2010, Chicago started a Safe Passage program, which was modeled after similar programs in California. The idea is to pay community members to be the eyes and ears of the neighborhoods through which Chicago children walk to and from school, with the aim of eliminating any dangers such routes might pose. The program seems to be working well: According to CPS’s website, “The successful Safe Passage program has led to a 20 percent decline in criminal incidents around Safe Passage schools, a 27 percent drop in incidents among students, and a 7 percent increase in attendance.”

Since the announcement of the school closures this spring, CPS has announced plans to ramp up the Safe Passage program to help kids from closed schools get to their new schools safely. This plan involves hiring an additional 600 workers who must pass background checks; be available to work five hours per a day, five days a week; be able to stand outside for long periods in all kinds of weather; and be able to de-escalate and report on conflicts. The Safe Passage workers receive mandatory training and ongoing support.

SEL on the welcome wagon

And what happens when the children actually arrive at their new schools? CPS is already aware of the value of social-emotional learning, or SEL (as evidenced by one school’s removal from the closure list because of its commitment to SEL), and plans to use it to the Welcoming Schools’ advantage.

Specifically, CPS will work with each individual school to design a plan of support, which includes, among other things, evidence-based social-emotional learning strategies. Or, as Jennifer Loudon, outgoing director of CPS’s Youth Development and Positive Behavioral Supports (YDPBS) department, puts it, “We want to make sure that every student in these schools feels valued, challenged, and supported in their academic and social-emotional growth.”

And what have 45 of the 49 Welcoming Schools chosen to help implement schoolwide social-emotional learning? The Second Step program. Karen Van Ausdal, current director of YDPBS, explains: “Second Step provides a powerful tool to help our students build the skills of empathy, problem solving, and self-management that will be necessary as they come together to build a new community of learners.”

No one in Chicago (or anywhere else) harbors any illusions that CPS’s first day of school this year will be perfect. They rarely are. But with a bit of imagination and a lot of hard work, the staff, parents, and community will make sure it’s as smooth as it can possibly be.