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ANALYSIS: As Chicago Public Schools open, the mayor has his own rite of passage

Mayor Rahm Emanuel meets students WillCather Elementary East Garfield Park first official day school. | Alex Wroblewski/Sun-Times

Mayor Rahm Emanuel meets students at Willa Cather Elementary in East Garfield Park on the first official day of school. | Alex Wroblewski/Sun-Times

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Updated: September 29, 2013 6:24AM

Mayor Rahm Emanuel was so tense before Chicago played host to the 2012 NATO Summit, he lost five pounds.

By that measure, Chicago’s wiry mayor may well have lost ten pounds in the run-up to the first day of school.

It’s one thing to protect the city from anarchists bent on physical destruction. It’s quite another to safeguard the lives of 12,700 children displaced by nearly 50 school closings.

If even one child is harmed on the longer walk down unfamiliar streets — sometimes through rival gang turf — Emanuel’s reputation and perhaps his political future will suffer.

No wonder a cast of thousands of government employees with a police helicopter hovering overhead lined the streets of Safe Passage routes Monday to reassure children and their parents.

Emanuel rose as usual at 5 a.m., completed his normal workout, then spent the day hop-scotching from one school to another with a phalanx of television cameras recording his every move.

At Willa Cather Elementary, 2908 W. Washington, he talked to the mother of a child displaced by the closing of Calhoun Elementary.

“I said, `What do you think?’ She had talked to the principal over the summer. She was very excited. The teachers were excited,” Emanuel told the Chicago Sun-Times.

At O’Toole Elementary, 6550 S. Seeley, he walked to school with a bubbly fourth-grader who was eager to get started and even more thrilled thinking about how jealous her friends would be when they learned who had accompanied her to school.

He also toured the improved O’Toole building, which now has air-conditioning, new windows, tuck-pointing and a new roof.

“All of the things the principals wanted and couldn’t get,” the mayor said.

“Because we made some very difficult and challenging decisions, we were able to do things we had put off and wanted to do for years. It is a tough decision. I’m glad now we have a moratorium [on school closings] in place for five years.”

In between the morning walk to school and the evening walk home, the mayor returned to his City Hall office and got on the horn to his field generals in the precision planning fit for a military invasion: Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy; Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett; School Board President David Vitale and Fire Commissioner Jose Santiago.

They told the mayor what he wanted to hear — that Day One was unfolding like clockwork, despite the embarrassment caused by a Streets and Sanitation crew’s gruesome discovery of a dead body stuffed in a trash can in an alley less than a block from a Safe Passage route in Englewood.

The mayor also canceled a scheduled afternoon appearance at one school to avoid protesters outside.

Emanuel is well aware that the real test for the largest school consolidation in the nation’s history will come when the TV cameras leave and public attention fades.

But, the mayor said he’s determined to stay the course, regardless of the cost.

“I’m glad the city stepped up. But, we have to do it every day, 365 days a year. Every day is a significant day for children,” he said.

As for the personal toll the effort has taken on him and his waistline, Emanuel said, “I understand you want to talk about how nervous [he was]. But, everybody in the city — whether you’re in the Police Department, the Fire Department or the CTA — we’re all focused like I’d like us to be. Every parent, every adult has to do their part so every child can live up to their full potential.”


Twitter: @fspielman

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