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“Safe Passage?”

Evidence that its “back to school” time in Chicago is popping up all over town.  Sadly it comes in the form of yellow signs along our sidewalks displaying an icon of children walking to school along with the words, “Safe Passage.”  With the unprecedented closing of forty-nine elementary schools this past June (and one more slated for next year), students are being re-routed to their “receiving schools” through new and often violent neighborhoods, in some cases across gang lines.

While I don’t doubt that the mayor, his appointed school board, and his school chief sincerely worry about the safety of children in the city, they are undoubtedly also aware of the public relations disaster awaiting them should any child be killed or wounded walking to his or her new school.  Safe passage monitors have been hired and are being trained – while thousands of teachers, cafeteria workers, and janitors have been fired – and at one point it was even proposed that firefighters be posted along “Safe Passage” routes for the first few weeks of school.  The mayor and his school chief want children to be safe.  But they also want no disruption to their slash and burn approach to so-called school reform.

Chicago school children and their parents who live with violence every day are not likely to be comforted by a huge investment in signs assuring them that all will be well.  After watching their schools closed and their teachers fired, new “Safe Passage” signs are little consolation.  And it’s hard to see how they serve much of a deterrent.  Parents and kids are not naïve; they can sniff out a public relations campaign as quickly as anyone.  It would be nice if the Mayor and his school chief would have the sensitivity to acknowledge parents’ fears about their children’s safety and would recognize the grieving that has been going on since the school closings were finally announced.  At least that would communicate some compassion on the part of leaders who seem hell bent on disrupting the lives and vocations of as many children and school professionals as possible.  Instead the public comments emanating from the Board of Education and the Mayor’s Office come across as nothing more than cheer leading and boosterism.  Say it loud enough and confidently enough and it will come true.

One interesting piece of news not announced with fanfare this summer was the issuing of Requests For Proposals by the school district for opening new charter schools next fall.  The RFP’s don’t specify how many new schools will open, but they do appear to be slated for neighborhoods on the west and south side of the city, the very neighborhoods where alleged “underutilized” public schools were closed this summer.  Promoters of charter schools, and the owners of the charter networks who rely on city contracts point to shifting demographics and the expansion of school “options” for parents.  But it’s hard not to see that the real agenda is the privatization of schools, the destruction of the teacher’s union, and the allure of big money from the well-heeled self-appointed school reformers in the corporate and philanthropic community.  How else can one explain the charterization of the public schools system when most reputable studies of their performance show that, overall, they have done little to improve the education of our children?

It’s hard to imagine how things could be worse.  But then there’s Philadelphia where the city is preparing to issue $50 million in bonds just to be able to open the schools on time, and this in spite of draconian cuts in May that eliminated sports, arts, music, counselors, new books, thousands of teachers and support personnel.  Emergency federal funding is pending but the governor is holding it as leverage to enforce additional concessions from the teacher’s union that has already watched its members laid off, accept salary cuts, assigned increased workloads, and losing many of the paracurricular programs they have led essentially as volunteers to enrich the educational experience of their children.

I used to live in a town whose motto was, “A community is known by the schools it keeps.”  No one is going to put that on a “Welcome to Chicago” or “Welcome to Philadelphia” sign these days or in countless other underfunded school districts around the country battered by the endless disruption of predatory school reformers and revenue slashing legislatures.  Instead we’re left with lovely yellow “Safe Passage” signs all over town, a grim reminder that these days perhaps the best we’re able or even willing to do for our kids is to try to keep them alive.

John H. Thomas
August 22, 2013

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