By Fiona Ortiz
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Teachers are being laid off as the Chicago Public Schools district deals with a massive financial crisis.
But in one area the fourth-largest U.S. public school system is not cutting corners: the $17.8 million annual budget for safety patrols that watch over children walking to school through neighborhoods plagued by gang violence.
The school district has expanded the two-year-old Safe Passage program to seven additional schools this year, bringing it to a total of 140 of Chicago's 660 public schools.
With 304 murders so far this year, up 18 percent from the same period last year, and 1,588 shooting incidents, up 17 percent, Chicago is one of the most dangerous big cities in the United States. Most of the homicides and shootings are blamed on rival gangs.
On the first day of school on Tuesday outside Sherwood Elementary School, in the Englewood neighborhood, 10 workers wearing reflective vests stood at nearby corners and escorted children.
"It's good to see the vests out here, it makes the kids feel more comfortable going to school," said Quierra Hardy as she dropped off her two children at Sherwood. "As far as gangs, it might make them think twice when they see so many witnesses out here."
Englewood has had 15 homicides in the past 365 days, according to city data, and is one of the five Chicago neighborhoods with the most reports of violent crime.
Safe Passage was launched in 2013 after 50 schools were shut down. The closures forced many Chicago children to traverse gang territory as they commuted to newly assigned schools.
Jadine Chou, chief security officer for Chicago Public Schools, said the school district does not have data on the program's effectiveness. But she noted: "We have not had a single incident with children hurt on a Safe Passage route in operation."
She said the program is a priority for Mayor Rahm Emanuel even as Chicago's schools face a $500 million budget shortfall this school year.
"He attributes higher attendance and safety to the program," Chou said.
The program's 1,300 workers make $10 an hour and work five hours a day during the school year. They use cellphones to call in if they see, for example, a car cruising by with multiple people who might be gang members.
Tortisure Jackson, team leader for the Safe Passage workers at Sherwood, says she has seen a difference in the two years she has been watching out for kids at the school.
"It changed big-time. I'm not going to say they are gone," she said, referring to gang members. "But they know not to be as visual as they used to be."
The program is popular, but some parents are skeptical.
"I appreciate the program, but we can't afford it. I would prefer to pay teachers and classroom assistants rather than people who can just stand guard," said Jeanette Taylor-Ramann, president of the school council at Mollison Elementary.
"We have a $500 million shortfall. I don't think we are using our money wisely," she said.
(Editing by Matthew Lewis)