Chicago students returning to school after summer break were greeted by 1,300 guards on their way to classes on Tuesday as part of a program aimed at making their commute safer.
The "Safe Passage" program, which aims to boost school attendance and reduce incidents of crime, was launched last year when concerns prompted the city to line the streets with 1,200 adults daily.
"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 Rahm Emanuel said on Thursday at a back-to-school rally for hundreds of Safe Passage workers.
Some 69,000 students were ushered to school by the guards on Tuesday.
The program, now in its fifth year, was doubled in size and scope following 50 school closings last year — a move that has forced many youngsters to travel greater distances to get to class. The city contributed another $1 million to the program, adding an additional 100 safety workers this fall for a total of 1,300 workers monitoring students' commute.
The program was given an additional boost on Thursday when Illinois Governor Pat Quinn pledged another $10 million, allowing an additional 600 workers to be hired over the next several weeks.
The total cost of Safe Passage for the 2014–2015 school year will reach $28.3 million, with hiring expected to exceed 1,900 workers, according to DNAinfo Chicago.
Ultimately, more workers will be assigned along existing routes and some routes will be extended farther from the schools, according to Jadine Chou, the chief safety and security officer for Chicago Public Schools.
"It was good last year, but I don't think it stopped the violence none," said mother Tiffany Davis, who was walking her 7-year-old son to Dulles School of Excellence on the city's South Side. "Maybe it calmed things down a little."
Guards begin their shifts less than an hour before classes start and stay up to an hour after they end, according to the Chicago Public Schools website. "By providing them with protection and peace of mind as they walk to and from school, Safe Passage allows students to focus on their learning rather than their safety," the website said.
There is far less publicity about this year’s first day of school compared to a year ago, when school closures by Mayor Emanuel had parents and others worried that forcing children to walk through unfamiliar and dangerous neighborhoods would put them at greater risk of being caught up in gang conflict.
But some say that the worst fears of violence against children walking to school never came to pass. Chou said not one student was seriously injured along a Safe Passage route during the hours that the guards were on duty last school year.
Still, some critics say the program falls short because it overlooks students who attend extracurricular activities before or after the guards are on duty.
Last December, a 15-year-old girl who left her home before dawn to get to a school on the city's North Side was beaten and raped less than a half block from a Safe Passage route.
"She had to get to school earlier than the Safe Passage [workers] were on duty," said state Rep. LaShawn Ford, who noted that Safe Passage workers were not on the street at 6 a.m.
Ford has pushed for the hours of the guards to be expanded this year.
The push to expand the program arrives at a time when crime has declined across the city since the 1990s. However, while the homicide rate has dropped in most neighborhoods, Daniel Kay Hertz notes that it has actually increased in certain neighborhoods covering roughly a third of the city.
The program is a political risk for Emanuel, who is up for re-election next year. His most-talked-about potential rival, Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis, has criticized him for closing neighborhood schools and dubbed him the "murder mayor" because of the city's violence.
Any violence that occurs on a student's walk to and from school could become fodder for Lewis — or any other opponent — to use against Emanuel, whose popularity has fallen over the last year.
Al Jazeera and wire services. Amel Ahmed contributed to this report.