Safe Routes to School :: Practice and Promise
Promising Practices -
From Whom Can We Learn?
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Chapter Four
  Chicago, Illinois  








About 90 percent of Chicago's 422,000 public school children still walk to school, making the city a great example of the benefits of safe-walking efforts. The City of Chicago and its Police Department, through the department's Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy, launched Operation Safe Passage in 1997. The program grew from a coalition of police, educators, local citizens, and ministers who were concerned about the dangers children faced when they walked thro-ugh areas rife with gang violence and gunfire. In 1998, Operation Safe Passage evolved into the Walking School Bus (WSB), a citywide program supported by the mayor, school superintendents, and principals. With WSB, children walk to school under the watchful eyes of adults along safe streets that have been taken back from the gangs that previously ruled them.

members of the walking school bus program

Description of Efforts

  • Police, parents, caregivers, and school safety officials monitored designated safe routes near participating schools.
  • Uniformed and tactical police officers patrolled the streets around these schools.
  • Public housing officers visited schools in the morning when students arrive and in the afternoon when they depart for the day.
  • Parent patrols, church volunteers, and residents supplemented the police patrols.
  • Program coordinators – employees paid by the Police Department trained parent patrols.
  • Adults who wanted to help, signed their names next to their address on street maps displayed at their local school. Clusters of households were then identified and linked so they could stay in contact with one another for the walking school bus that takes the chaperoned students to school safely.
  • Police conducted background checks and fingerprint all volunteers.
  • Volunteers wore vests that identified them as WSB “drivers” and carried walkie-talkies so they could communicate with each other and the police.
  • Volunteer parent attendance officers went door to door to pick up children and make sure they arrive at school on time; other volunteers stand at designated stations.
  • Staff worked with the Bureau of Transportation to improve crosswalk markings and other signage. Together, they also created maps that showed which street corners have crossing guards and which streets have police patrols, so that parents can pick the safest route to school.


  • WSB is citywide and includes more than 3,000 volunteers.
  • Every school in Chicago distributes the booklet “Safe Passage to and from Chicago Public Schools.”
  • The police presence sends a message that criminal activity around schools will not be tolerated.
  • The City of Chicago has razed three buildings once occupied by rival gangs that had a reputation for sniper gunfire.
  • Parents increase the “eyes on the street” and can quickly identify problem intersections and criminal activity.
  • Crime-ridden blocks are targeted for graffiti-removal, new lighting, sidewalk repair, and other crime-prevention measures.


  • Lack of government funding.
  • Keeping volunteers motivated.
  • Coordinating activities with other safety programs in the city. Funding*
  • Chicago Police Department's Alternative Policing Strategy funded the program coordinator position.
  • The City of Chicago funded 10 youth coordinator positions.
  • Contributions from local businesses, private agencies, and parents.
    (*Actual funding amounts were unavailable)

Complementary Effort

In 2001, the Chicago Department of Transportation contracted with the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation to manage the Safe Routes To School (SR2S) project. Chicago Department of Transportation's partners include the Chicago Public Schools, Illinois Secretary of State, Chicago Police Department, and Children's Memorial Hospital. The focus of the SR2S project is to increase the number of children who ride their bikes to school, which reduces traffic, encourages more physical activity, and increases overall health and safety.

Lessons Learned

The Chicago Walking School Bus project is now well-established. But when the project started, staff had trouble scheduling appointments with school principals and teachers to discuss the project and its benefits. The key to their success was having City and Police Department support. It legitimized the program and provided some leverage when staff wanted to schedule meetings at the schools. Through these meetings, project staff learned that they needed to lay out all project details and activities, and clearly state what they expected school officials, staff, and parent volunteers to do. The key was flexibility; every school and community posed different challenges and had different concerns. To identify the differences and inform the community about WSB, project staff attended PTA meetings, school council meetings, school assemblies, and community meetings. To keep the parents who have signed up to be “drivers” motivated and involved, they receive small incentives throughout the year—baseball caps, sweatshirts, gift certificates—that are donated by local businesses and merchants.


Kathie Carothers, School Safety Coordinator
Chicago Police Department CAPS
Tel: (312) 744-CAPS (744-2277)
Web site:










With WSB, children walk to school under the watchful eyes of adults along safe streets that have been taken back from the gangs that previously ruled them.

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