CHICAGO (WLS) --Chicago Public Schools kicked off a new school year on Tuesday. Hundreds of new Safe Passage workers stood guard along local routes as about 400,000 CPS students returned to class.
"I'm excited to go to school today because I want to learn how to read," said Jacara Walker, a student at Kipp Ascend College Prep. "I'm struggling with reading."
The Safe Passage program, now in its second year, is getting an additional $11 million from the city and state. Last year, Safe Passage workers were placed near schools that received students from 50 closed schools. Those involved say it is a program that so far, works well.
"The citizens respect us, which makes it easier and safe for kids to walk back and forth to school," said Javahna Borden.
School officials hoped for high attendance numbers on the first day of school. This is the second year that all city schools start on the same day.
Mayor Emanuel greeted students at Penn Elementary School in Chicago's Lawndale neighborhood later on Tuesday, along with CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett. At the end of the school day, the mayor was there for the final bell on the Northwest Side.
"This year we start the school year with a little wind at our back with improving test scores, improving graduation rates and improving ACT scores," Emanuel said.
"We are excited for the start of another great school year," Byrd-Bennett said. "Keeping students engaged and connected in class is critical in preparing them for college and career."
Governor Pat Quinn welcomed students back to school at Vanderpoel Elementary Magnet School in the city's Washington Heights neighborhood.
Governor Quinn at Vanderpoel Elementary. (Ken Bedford)
CPS will provide free breakfast and lunch to all students this year, regardless of economic eligibility, as part of the district's Community Eligibility Provision and the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.
Chicago students and parents heading to school on the CTA will ride for free on the first day of school. Students may also take advantage of reduced fares on the CTA - 75-cent rides - this year. Those with a student Ventra card will ride at the reduced rate from 5:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Monday - Friday on days school is in session.
Concerns about Chicago students' safety prompted the city to line the streets with 1,200 adults along Safe Passage routes every day. Guards start less than an hour before classes begin and stay up to an hour after school ends, according to Chicago Public Schools.
Thanks to an infusion of $1 million from the city, another 100 Safe Passage workers will be on routes that students walk through crime-ridden neighborhoods to get to school. After Quinn pledged $10 million, officials said another 600 of the workers would be hired and on the streets over the next several weeks.
"I'm so happy that they did fund the program. I mean it's good. It's bringing more workers out here. It's keeping the neighborhood safer. I think it's good," said Nashanda Hastings, a Safe Passage worker.
CPS STUDENTS AFFECTED BY SCHOOL CLOSURES
This school year will be a change for CPS parent Tanika Jackson and her children.
Due to CPS school closures, her children will be starting at a third new school in three years. This year, they will be attending a charter school.
"I hope the teachers are wonderful. I hope the communication is still open," Jackson said. "It's a little different for us because its charter school. We're usually straight CPS."
In Chicago's Bronzeville neighborhood on the South Side, controversy continues over the impending closure of Dyett High School. Only 10 seniors are expected to arrive Tuesday morning for final classes.
Two years ago, the Chicago Board of Education made the call to phase out Dyett because of poor academic performance. A group of community organizers hasn't given up hope to keep Dyett open, saying there's a strong need for a neighborhood school. Some students feel they have been forgotten by the system.
Students and activists said they will continue to fight to make sure children who don't qualify for charter schools or selected enrollment get a chance for quality education.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.