Updated 09/02/14 – 11:42 a.m.

CHICAGO (CBS) — Hundreds of thousands of Chicago Public Schools students returned to class Tuesday for the first day of the new school year, and many of them were taking advantage of the Safe Passage program for the first time.

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CBS 2’s Susanna Song reports, for the first time in at least three years, it’s a calm start to school – no teachers’ strike, no mass school closings.

CPS Chief Executive Officer Barbara Byrd-Bennett and Mayor Rahm Emanuel were scheduled to greet students at William Penn Elementary School in the North Lawndale neighborhood.

Students at Penn have three things to look forward to this year: a community peace garden, air conditioning, and a Safe Passage route.

Penn is one of 27 schools that were added to the Safe Passage program this year, to provide students with designated routes to and from school, monitored by police officers and hundreds of workers hired by the city.

“What I love is being here for the kids. I’m happy that we have someone out here to watch the kids,” said Safe Passage worker Nashanda Hastings.

The state of Illinois committed $10 million to the Safe Passage program this year to help expand it to a total of 133 Safe Passage routes to and from elementary and high schools in Chicago. The funding from the state, along with a $1 million increase in funding from the city, allowed officials to hire 600 new Safe Passage workers this year.

Emanuel took the inaugural two-block stroll along the Safe Passage route for Penn, greeting students and parents, who welcomed the new route for Penn.

“Last year, before the kids got out of school, there was a shooting right here on the corner, and we had to have a lockdown. So, yeah, we need a Safe Passage route,” parent Dena Alvarez said.

Fellow parent Latoya Johnson said, “I wouldn’t say that it’s needed, but it’s good to be safe. … Better safe than sorry.”

At a school assembly, the mayor congratulated students for showing up for the first day of school after their summer break.

“It is hard to get up, and get that clock moving,” Emanuel said.

Byrd-Bennett tried to get the kids in the spirit, encouraging them to find their restart button.

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“No matter what happened last year for our children, it’s time to start fresh and new; and you get that chance to do it over again, and do it really, really well,” she said.

Jasmine Cole said she’s glad her little brother will have an escort for his three-block walk to Penn.

“The neighborhood, it’s not the best neighborhood. It’s not the worst, and it’s not the best, but every child needs someone to watch over them,” Jasmine said.

Henry English, president and CEO of the Illinois Black United Fund, is one of the program leaders for the Safe Passage program. He said his group voluntarily began keeping an eye on school routes about 10 years ago.

“We look, and we check, and if there’s something out of order we call. We report it. So that’s what makes it safer,” English said.

Safe Passage has been around since 2009, but expanded significantly last fall, after CPS closed dozens of elementary schools, in order to protect students crossing gang lines to get to their new schools.

“It worked last year. We anticipate that it will work again. We’ve been doing work in those zones, behind the scenes, with undercover operations like narcotics enforcement, gang enforcement, things of that sort,” Police Supt. Garry McCarthy said.

CPS officials said no students were harmed while walking to or from school on any of the Safe Passage routes last year. Workers said the key to success is hiring residents from the community, because they know the kids they’ll be watching.

Also new this year, regardless of their family income, all CPS students can get free breakfast and lunch as part of an expanded federally funded program.

Meantime, as it has since 2011, the CTA was offering students free rides on all its buses and trains for the first day of school. Students also can get a 75-cent discount on CTA rides throughout the school year on weekdays between 5:30 a.m. and 8:30 p.m.

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis said the upcoming school year would be important not just for students, but their teachers, who are in the final year of a three-year deal they approved in 2012.

“I think the biggest challenge for CPS teachers this year is to realize that this is the end of our contract year,” she said. “We want to make sure that the things that are working, we can continue to work; and that things that aren’t working, that we’ll want to tweak. So that’s a big, big, big challenge this year.”

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Though Lewis has said she is seriously considering a run for mayor against Emanuel next year, she has yet to make a final decision.