Natasha Gasich is a first grade teacher at Genevieve Melody STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) Elementary School, a public grade school in the West Garfield Park area of Chicago. According to Gasich, nearly all of her students either take the train to school or on weekends, despite their young ages.
Out of a total of approximately 1.6 million weekday train and bus riders, 135,000 — nearly one in 10 — are school-age children, according to the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA). Of those 135,000 student riders, the vast majority, about 107,000, ride city buses. The remainder ride the “L”, (the local term for Chicago’s elevated and subway train system).
More often than not, the trips to and from school by students riding public transit are made without their parents or another adult. So when Gasich’s friend at the transit authority mentioned they were ramping up a program to go into classrooms and conduct lessons on staying safe on public transportation, Gasich jumped at the chance, perhaps also inspiring a future transit authority worker or two in the process.
“The program was very engaging. I teach primary students and they were very engaged with the videos and interacting with [Chicago Transit Authority] workers. I did a follow up a couple weeks later to see if they remembered the safety rules they learned, and the students were excited to talk about the [Chicago Transit Authority] workers they saw and safety on the train,” Gasich says.
It might seem like an obvious thing, but the transit authority had stopped offering the program for several years. In bringing it back, the authority was strategic about where to go first. The authority launched a pilot version of the renewed “Be Safe on CTA” program to three public elementary schools in 2017: Budlong Elementary, Beasley Academic Center and Wildwood Elementary. These schools were selected because they represent a multi-ethnic and diverse cross-section of Chicago students, according to Irene Ferradaz, a Chicago Transit Authority Media and Public Affairs spokesperson.
As a result of the success of the pilot program, the authority has expanded the “Be Safe on CTA” program to the entire Chicago Public Schools elementary public school system. In February 2018, the authority presented the first presentation from the expanded “Be Safe on CTA” program to around a hundred first, second and third-grade students at Genevieve Melody STEM Elementary.
The interactive 30-minute program sends transit authority workers to public grade school classrooms to conduct classes on staying safe when riding public transportation. The program also includes an instructional video and a question and answer period. Afterwards, students receive an activity book filled with puzzles, quizzes and coloring pages on transit safety. Their teachers also receive an oversized poster as a reminder of the safety tips the children have learned during the live session.
Individual public schools may request in-class presentation of the “Be Safe on CTA” program; there is no charge to the schools for the service. The authority is also reaching out to public school administrators to schedule presentations. At present, charter schools and private schools are not eligible to request live presentations, although the program may be expanded to include them in the future, Ferradaz stated.
The transit authority partnered with Chicago Public Schools to design the “Be Safe on CTA” educational program. All the materials for the program were created in house by transit authority communications and safety staff, to minimize production costs, according to Ferradaz.
Along with the “Be Safe on CTA” program, the Chicago Transit Authority provides fare reduction for students. Rather than the regular fares of $2.50 for the “L” and $2.25 for buses, students from ages 7 to 20 may ride the bus or “L” for 75 cents during school fare hours. Transfers for eligible students during school fare hours are reduced from 25 cents to 15 cents. Children under age 7 ride Chicago public transit for free at all times when accompanied by fare paying adults.
Audrey F. Henderson is a Chicagoland-based freelance writer and researcher specializing in sustainable development in the built environment, culture and arts related to social policy, socially responsible travel, and personal finance. Her work has been featured in Transitions Abroad webzine and Chicago Architect magazine, along with numerous consumer, professional and trade publications worldwide.