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Why Chicago students walk past guards on way to school

Amanda PaulsonThe Christian Science Monitor

When Chicago students left for their first day of school Tuesday, many of them walked by a veritable army of guards designated to keep them safe.

The school district added 100 Safe Passage workers – paid adult watchers – to the 1,200 who were on the streets last year to ensure that students who need to walk through potentially dangerous neighborhoods on their way to school get to class without incident.

Over the next few weeks, thanks to a $10 million grant from Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, the city will expand that number even more, adding 600 more workers and allowing 27 additional schools to be added to the program.

But compared with last year, when Chicago closed 50 schools amid heated dissent, the new school year was ushered in quietly.

With 12,000 affected students heading off to their reassigned schools last September, in many cases crossing unfamiliar streets and gang territory, Chicago doubled the Safe Passage program last year. Mayor Rahm Emanuel also visited many of the new school routes himself, to assure parents he was taking their safety concerns seriously.

In the end, that effort appears to have paid off. There were no incidents of violence reported as students walked to school. And while there is still plenty of anger toward Chicago’s school reform efforts among parents and teachers – particularly around testing, charter schools, and the school closures – there isn’t the open hostility that existed a year ago, when some groups called on teachers to boycott school to attend a rally just two days after it began. 

“Safe Passage is about more than just building a route to school; it is about building a route to college, career and beyond, so that once our kids get to school, they get the world-class education they deserve,” Mayor Emanuel said in a statement.

Once the city’s and state’s new investments in the program are complete, nearly 70,000 Chicago students will be served by the Safe Passage program, with 40 new routes added to the 93 routes the city established last year.

The workers, who are posted along school perimeters and key routes to school in dangerous neighborhoods, are supposed to not only watch as students go to school, but also build relationships with those students and, hopefully, de-escalate potentially violent situations or prevent them from occurring.

In many ways, this was the quietest back-to-school Chicago has had in several years. Two years ago, the school year kicked off with a seven-day teachers’ strike. And before that, Emanuel pushed through a longer school day amid heated opposition. 

But don’t expect things to remain too quiet.

Emanuel is up for reelection for a second term in February, and one of his most prominent possible challengers is Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union and one of the mayor’s fiercest critics. If she does seek the office, Emanuel’s education policy – still unpopular with many parents and teachers in the city – will be a central point of debate.

The current Chicago teachers’ contract also expires next year, raising the likelihood of contentious talks – and possibly another strike – in the coming year.

One recent Chicago Tribune poll showed that 65 percent of Chicagoans disapproved of the mayor’s handling of education policy, compared with just 26 percent who approve. Among poll respondents with children in CPS schools, the divide was even stronger, with nearly 80 percent saying they disapprove of his education policy.

In any coming debate, however, Emanuel is likely to point to the very significant gains the district has made.

Last week, CPS reported a five-year graduation rate of 69 percent, up 4 percent from the prior year, which itself was a 4 point improvement over the year before. The average ACT score for CPS students has risen to an all-time high of 18, and more than 84 percent of CPS freshmen passed their courses and finished the year on track for graduation.