Back to school: Duke Ellington School, 244 N. Central, on the first day of school Aug. 25.AustinTalks

After a summer of debates and rallies over the closure of 49 Chicago schools, including four in Austin, class is back in session.

Parents outside Edward K. Ellington School said they have few complaints, if any, after the first full week of classes.

Ellington, 244 N. Central, received students from Francis Scott Key and Robert Emmet elementary schools, which closed in June.

Terry Taylor, whose son attended Emmet, said the transition has been smooth so far, and he’s been waiting for a chance to send his second-grader to Ellington.

“It’s one of the top schools, but I’m hoping they can maintain that after bringing in more students,” Taylor said.

There were no long waits or chaos, Taylor added. But some other parents said they did have such experiences at Ellington on the first day Aug. 25, according to news reports.

Evelyn Pate — who had to move five children from Key to Ellington — said she hasn’t had any issues. CPS, she added, registered her children for her after Key closed.

Ellington’s assistant principal declined to comment, citing CPS policy that all communication must go through CPS’ central office.

According to David Miranda, deputy press secretary for CPS, 93.5 percent of enrolled students district-wide made it to school on Aug. 23. Ninety-six percent of 1,057 students from Key, Emmett, Louis Armstrong and Horatio May elementary schools were registered for school as of Aug. 20, according to Miranda.

And close to 900 of those students were registered at their designated welcoming school, either George Leland, Oscar DePriest or Ellington. The Chicago Board of Education voted to close schools in May. Before the vote, CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett promised welcoming schools would get certain capital improvements, including air-conditioning and iPads for all students.

Welcoming schools will also receive interior “cosmetic” improvements, such as new labs for International Baccalaureate and I-STEM programs. Larger lunchrooms were also promised, and new technology is slated to support student safety, but plans do not specify what those will be.

Improvements at Leland — which is now housed in May’s building — will cost more than $4 million. DePriest’s plan calls for $490,000 in upgrades, while Ellington’s will cost $800,000. Renovations at Ellington and Leland are scheduled to be finished in December; and DePriest’s in October.

Crossing gang lines

Another issue has been how children will safely get to their new schools while crossing gang lines. Some shootings along or near the “Safe Passage” routes have left parents and community activists worried.

But Safe Passage workers on the Austin routes said things went smoothly the first week, said Morris Reed, CEO of Westside Health Authority, which CPS hired to staff the routes. Volunteers have been “energized and enthusiastic,” according to parents’ comments to Reed.

WHA, he said, looked for workers who live in Austin and have worked on service projects before. Workers from the area can connect with students better, and can take leadership over the routes,” Reed said.

With students mixing from different schools, Reed hopes kids get along as the year progresses. He said good relationships will prevent tensions that lead to fights along the routes.

But a fight did break out Aug. 30, on Central Avenue’s safe passage route as students were leaving Ellington. Lingering students seemed unsure of the details but thought the fight was between some older students and an “outsider” across the street.

Chicago police was there within seconds as officers were already patrolling the area as part of the Safe Passage program.

“This is just what I’m talking about,” said Dwayne Truss, a West Side organizer and board member of Raise Your Hand for Illinois Education. If students are already fighting in front of police during the first week, Truss worries about violence escalating.

Kids, he warned, will smarten up and move away from the Safe Passage route before starting fights. And some residents are concerned about routes that don’t exist inside the new, wider attendance boundaries for Austin’s welcoming schools.

The corner of Jackson Boulevard and Central Avenue, near DePriest School, for instance, is not a designated Safe Passage route. Truss said that area is a busy intersection and near “hot spots” for criminal activity.

Tina Chenault, coordinator for Austin’s Safe Passage effort, did not immediately respond to questions about what parents have told her, if anything, about non-designated routes.

An elected school board

CPS spokesperson Miranda said the city will continue to make any necessary adjustments to routes based on police and community input. Some community activists are making their own plans for the rest of the school year: getting more parent support for an elected Chicago school board.

School board members have been appointed by the mayor since the 1990s, via state legislation that was passed making the CPS board the only one in Illinois not elected by voters.

The fight for an elected board was revived last fall. A referendum ballot in the 2012 election asked voters if they’d like to see an elected Chicago school board. On the ballot in 327 precincts throughout Chicago, about 87 percent of voters said yes.

Now, Truss said he’s educating parents about their voting rights, and encouraging them to get registered to vote. The more people who are educated, the more support they’ll have to push for this cause in Springfield, Truss insists.

Only an elected school board, he argues, can represent what the community wants for its schools. CPS officials would not immediately comment on this topic.

For now, parents like Rodney Johnson — with three kids at Ellington — maintains it’s too early to tell how all these issues will pan out this school year.

“We gotta give it some time to see,” he said.