CHICAGO — Just three weeks ago, the sidewalk in front of the Robert Taylor Homes was desolate.
Bullets whizzed across the courtyard of this Chicago public-housing project as rival gangs shot at each other from the top floors of the 16-story towers. Few dared to go outside for long, and frightened parents refused to let their children walk to school. Indeed, attendance at the nearby Mary C. Terrell Elementary School plummeted to 60 percent.
Now, instead of gunfire, the sound of children laughing fills the courtyard as students romp in the January snow. Attendance at Terrell is up to 96 percent, and desks are also filling up at other schools near the project.
"Now the kids can play on their way home," says Terrell parent Steven Parker.
Mr. Parker is a major reason why they can. He and others - from church leaders to a former Chicago Bear lineman - have come here to escort students to and from school. More than 100 volunteers patrol the streets, and the program now includes seven other schools. At a time when school safety is a growing concern, it is a dramatic example of a nationwide grass-roots push for residents to find their own solutions to difficult problems.
"We drew a line and said enough is enough," says the Rev. B. Herbert Martin, pastor of the nearby Progressive Community Church and a leader of the effort.
So far, their efforts have paid off and the shootings have stopped. In addition, Terrell's 96 percent attendance is well above the school district's average.
In this way, the escort program here may hold lessons for other school districts across the country that are dealing with the pervasive problem of violence against schoolchildren. A 1996 study in the Journal of the American Medical Society found that 105 people died on school property or on the way to school over a two-year period. Nearly three-fourths of the victims were students and 4 of 5 were homicides, according to the study.
"We tend to underestimate the risk of violence to young people," says Dewey Cornell, an associate professor of education at the University of Virginia and director of Virginia's Youth Violence Project. Students who witness violence are more likely to carry weapons themselves and join gangs in order to feel safe, Mr. Cornell says.
How to keep children safe
Many schools rely on security guards to keep the peace, says John Devine, a professor at the New York University School of Education who studied school violence in his 1996 book "Maximum Security." But the most effective way to ensure school safety is for educators to work with people in the community to attack the roots of violence, Mr. Devine says.
In Chicago, the school system tried that kind of community outreach with the Taylor Homes. Officials from the Chicago Public Schools, Chicago Police Department, and Chicago Housing Authority began meeting in December with local religious leaders and community groups to talk about conditions in the neighborhood. During those meetings the ministers learned of the drop in school attendance caused by the shootings and decided to issue a call for volunteer escorts, Mr. Martin says.
Word of the volunteer effort spread quickly, attracting people from all parts of the city, including men from the Taylor Homes, the nearby and mostly white Bridgeport neighborhood, the Black United Contractors, and the wealthy suburb of Barrington - 36 miles away.
Chicago Public School Superintendent Paul Vallas showed up every day for a week to walk the children to school, and so did former Chicago Bear defensive tackle (now with the Washington Redskins) Chris Zorich - a Chicago native himself. "Not only has it become intergenerational, it's become cross cultural," Martin says. "They're coming from every neighborhood."
The Chicago Police Department is working with the volunteers and beefing up its presence around the Taylor Homes when school lets out.
The gangs have also responded to the show of force - some of the gang leaders are now walking their own children to school and have told the ministers they are calling a cease-fire in their drug wars, Martin says.
The school system is working to sustain the efforts of the volunteers by hiring 80 of them - 10 at each of the schools near the Taylor Homes - to work four hours a day as parent attendance officers. In addition to escorting the children to school, the attendance officers go up into their apartments to find them if they have been absent.
Now, other Chicago schools are asking if they can have their own parent attendance officers, and the district has to decide whether it can afford to extend the program across the city, says Kimberly Muhammad-Earl, director of special projects for the Chicago Public Schools.
Escorts as role models
Besides protecting the children, the escorts act as role models and help shatter myths about inner-city men being irresponsible, says Patrick Tolan of the University of Illinois at Chicago's Institute of Juvenile Research.
The key will be whether the movement can sustain itself and continue tackling neighborhood projects once the media attention dies down and other needs compete for the volunteers' time, he adds.
Mr. Parker, for one, vows to stays involved.
"It's a good feeling to see kids happy."