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Chicago opens new school year: Will it be less testy than the last? (+video)

With 48 schools closed (and two more set to close), some 12,000 students had to find their way to new schools, sometimes through dangerous neighborhoods. Budget cuts and controversy over teacher evaluations loom, but the top concern is safety of students in transit.

New school year, long walks, in Chicago
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Chicago on Monday opened a new school year with 48 fewer public schools, fewer teachers, fewer support staff, a reduced budget, and an intense amount of scrutiny, particularly concerning the safety of students from closed schools, many of whom now must cross dangerous neighborhoods to get to their new schools.

It's likely to be a year at least as tumultuous as the last one, which was marked by a seven-day teachers strike and a fierce fight over the school closures. Acrimony between the teachers union and the school district is not expected to abate, as a budget and pension crisis looms, and as Chicago Public Schools begins to implement new Common Core standards and controversial teacher evaluation systems.

“The key question is whether Chicago can set aside the last year’s trauma and focus on improving teaching and learning,” says Timothy Knowles, director of the University of Chicago's Urban Education Institute. While he hopes the focus will be on new standards, improved evaluations, deepening the bench of capable school leaders, and innovation and “next-generation” education models, his expectations are not high. “Chicago is a theater town," he says, "and pension wars, big budget axes, and debates about the merits of [the] Safe Passage [program to safeguard students] may rule the day.”

With 12,000 students affected by the closure of 47 elementary schools and one high school (two more elementary schools will close later), safety was the immediate concern on the first day. Many parents and critics of the school closures – which the district says were necessitated by budget constraints – have warned that violence may result as students walk unfamiliar streets in dangerous neighborhoods and cross gang territory to get to their new schools.

The city, for its part, has initiated a massive safety effort, including hundreds of newly hired guards to man the “Safe Passage” routes to school. The Safe Passage program was already in place at several schools, but the city hired about 600 more workers to man 53 new routes to the “welcoming schools,” to which students from shuttered schools have been reassigned.

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