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School preparations on track

Chicago Public Schools are preparing for new school year starting Aug. 26. |  Sun-Times file photo

Chicago Public Schools are preparing for the new school year starting Aug. 26. | Sun-Times file photo

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Updated: September 13, 2013 6:09AM

Is the Chicago school system ready to welcome thousands of students from closed schools into new ones on Aug. 26, just two weeks from Monday?

At a news conference on Friday, in a show of force designed to beat back critics who say they aren’t ready, the heads of the schools and police department and top dogs at a range of other city agencies insisted CPS is ready.

“We are on track for a fantastic first day,” CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said, setting the tone for all to follow.

We’ve long been among the doubters, urging CPS to close fewer than the 47 schools they voted in May to shutter this summer — both because some deserved to remain open and because we doubted that CPS could pull off this massive logistical challenge safely and humanely.

And while CPS will never match the sunny optimism on display on Friday, it’s time for credit where credit is due. The schools are far more prepared than we expected — and this covers the gamut: safety, school construction, furniture and records delivery and more.

Does this mean there won’t be setbacks? Of course not.

Does this mean the “safe passage” program meant to protect kids on longer walks to new schools will be perfectly executed and keep them all safe? No.

But here are some stats that should give parents some measure of peace:

◆ Construction at 98 schools, including 51 schools receiving students from closed buildings, is expected to wrap up next week.

◆ Under public pressure, CPS on Friday finally released the 53 safe passage routes for students to walk, at least part of the way, to their new schools.

◆ CPS says it has hired all 600 (out of a pool of 2,800 applicants) workers to man the safe passage routes, with training set for next week. Some likely won’t pass the background check or show up Aug. 26, but that’s still an impressive showing in such a short time period.

◆ 90 percent of students from closed schools are enrolled in a new school (81 perecent at their designated receiving school).

There’s little doubt CPS has massaged some numbers, including the enrollment figures. But even accounting for that, these figures paint a picture of a school system hard at work. You may disagree with CPS’ plans, and the compressed timetable to make such massive changes, but CPS appears to be doing what it promised to do.

Perhaps most impressive is the coming together of city agencies around the safe passage routes. Abandoned buildings have been razed, unsafe building secured, sidewalks fixed and CAPS volunteers activated. For five hours a day — two before school and three after — adults will man these routes, giving kids a new level of adult supervision.

We’d still take a shorter walk to a familiar, quality school any day over safe passage, even if it works well. But that ship has sailed, and CPS had done an admirable job of attempting to make it a smooth ride.

Two weeks remain before school begins, and there’s much to keep an eye on:

◆ The receiving schools have yet to fill all teacher slots to cover the incoming students.

◆ New students invariably will register on Aug. 26, forcing schools to scramble to make room.

◆ Some parents and advocates say the safe passage routes don’t cover enough territory and, after a review of some, we see their point. Also, many routes include major congested streets, which can be unsafe, especially for small children.

◆ Even if construction finishes next week, schools will have little time to turn former construction sites into safe, orderly schools.

But for now, for a day, some hard-working folks at CPS deserve a moment of praise.

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