Chicago students head to new schools

CHICAGO (AP) — Thousands of Chicago Public Schools students will head to new schools Monday, following a vote in May to close about 50 schools and programs to help pay down a $1 billion budget deficit.

The Chicago Board of Education — hand-picked by Emanuel — voted approved the closings in a move Mayor Rahm Emanuel and schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said would allow the district to improve academics as it paid down the deficit.

“That’s a new chapter,” Emanuel said. “There is a new beginning.”

Critics of the school closings said minority students were disproportionately affected and that many students would now have to cross dangerous gang boundaries. Some families sued, but a federal judge recently refused to halt the plan.

Many students will be accompanied by a crop of newly hired workers in yellow reflective vests, Chicago firefighters and even the security guards from local public libraries, all of them expected to stand guard to ensure kids get to and from school safely.

The effort known as Safe Passage — which stations workers and others along designated routes to help students who must cross gang boundaries — is perhaps the most visible sign of how much is at stake for students in a district that has long struggled academically and financially, as well as for a mayor who has vowed since taking office that he would turn things around.

“Safe Passage is about more than just building a route to school,” Emanuel told about 1,000 people during a training session last week. “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.”

The school system announced it would expand the Safe Passage program that already was in place at 35 high schools and four elementary schools — buildings that district officials say have seen a 7 percent increase in attendance and a 20 percent decrease in crime since Safe Passage began.

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