UNIVERSITY VILLAGE — The mayor thanked safe-passage workers for a job well done Monday and urged them to finish the school year strong and carry child safety into the summer months at a celebratory luncheon at the UIC Forum.
"I cannot thank you enough," Mayor Rahm Emanuel told more than 1,000 safe-passage workers treated to a buffet lunch. Yet he quickly added, "Our job is not done," and he called on them to serve into June and beyond "making sure our kids are safe."
Safe passage for students has been a longtime project at Chicago Public Schools, but it gained new importance this school year after Emanuel's hand-picked Board of Education closed 50 schools last year. The program paying hourly wages for "CPS Community Watch" workers overseeing students' safety on their way to and from schools doubled from 600 to 1,200, adding 53 safe-passage routes involving 91 schools.
Emanuel acknowledged "a lot of naysayers, a lot of voices of doubt" when the school year began in August, but credited the safe-passage workers with making things go as smoothly as they have.
CPS Chief Executive Officer Barbara Byrd-Bennett credited students feeling secure for data showing "academic achievement is up, attendance is up," a point echoed by Emanuel in thanking the workers.
"When something goes wrong, I get the blame," said Police Supt. Garry McCarthy in addressing the workers. "But our success is our success."
Safe-passage workers applauded the thanks and the free lunch, but one also chanted, "Money, money, money, money," when reasons for the program's success came up.
"I appreciate it," said safe-passage worker Anthony Maddox afterward. "It's a good meal. They probably owed us anyway," he added with a laugh.
Maddox said he received $10 an hour, five days a week as a safe-passage worker near Clemente High School in Ukrainian Village, trained in overseeing students and preventing conflicts and handling those that occur.
Maddox said he did not blame Emanuel personally for the school closings, but that once it happened it was about making the best of the situation. "It's not our fault," he said. "But you gotta still make the kids safe."
Andrea Townsend, a safe-passage worker near Gregory Elementary in Lawndale, acknowledged the hard winter and said she appreciated the recognition from the mayor, Byrd-Bennett and McCarthy, adding, "Overall, it was well worth it."
She said it wasn't necessary to reinvigorate safe-passage workers for the warmer weather coming in the spring, because they're trained to be "always on the alert."
Some safe-passage workers, however, who declined to give their names, said they'd been advised by supervisors not to grant interviews to news outlets.
The event had the feel of a campaign rally, with Emanuel glad-handing his way from table to table between the lunch and the speeches, and with the major neighborhood groups supplying workers to the safe-passage program being read off by name to cheers from their pockets of supporters.
Asked his opinion of Emanuel, Maddox said, "I think potholes should be fixed. But other than that it's all good. He's doing his job."
Emanuel agreed on the potholes, at one point sending another in a series of messages to Mother Nature, saying, "I'm glad you're leaving. I'd like you to take this snow with you. And you could take the potholes while you're at it."