ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel. President Obama was in Chicago today, promoting what he calls ladders of opportunity to the middle class. It's the latest stop of his post-State of the Union tour, fleshing out the proposals from Tuesday night's speech. At a high school near his southside Chicago home, the president said reducing urban gun violence is essential to economic development.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Because it's very hard to develop economically if people don't feel safe. If they don't feel like they can walk down the street and shop at a store without getting hit over the head or worse, then commerce dries up, businesses don't want to locate, families move out. You get into the wrong cycle.
SIEGEL: Hyde Park Academy High School has struggled to keep students safe as they travel to and from home each day. Two years ago, NPR's David Schaper reported on the school's new Safe Passage program, which involves retired military veterans. This week, he went back to find out if it's working.
DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: It's a little after 3:15, dismissal time at Hyde Park Academy on Chicago's south side. A few blocks away from the school, students walking in small groups pass by a few older African-American gentlemen wearing heavy winter coats and blue knit hats.
That's 65-year-old Edward Malone, who's standing on a corner before a long viaduct that's been a trouble spot over the years. That's why Malone, an army veteran who served in Vietnam, is here to stand watch.
EDWARD MALONE: They call it creating a culture of calm.
SCHAPER: Malone is part of Leave No Veteran Behind, an organization that has been hired as part of the Chicago Public Schools' Safe Passage program. Its mission is to help kids get to and from school safely. Many students must travel through dangerous gang turf or past rival cliques. Malone says the idea is to create a trusted adult presence for students near possible trouble spots.
MALONE: Because they see the same people, like, every day they know if they need someone to - that we're here and that we're going to be here, like, every day. So I think that kind of helps.
SCHAPER: Malone and the others may try to break up a fight but he says their job first and foremost is to...
MALONE: ...report it. I want to observe it, who went where, why, how, what happened.
SCHAPER: The Safe Passage personnel are given cell phones and two-way radios to keep in contact with police and school security. But they say that their calm presence alone often prevents incidents from happening.
RUTH THOMAS: Veterans are always on alert.
SCHAPER: Ruth Thomas served in the Army for 23 years. She's now project coordinator for Leave No Veterans Behind and says their military training helps them often spot trouble before it starts, such as noticing a teen walking with a little limp.
THOMAS: Him and his friends were going towards a park behind the school, so my personnel followed them to the park. And when they got to the park they pulled baseball bats out of their pants. They came there to beat up some other students.
SCHAPER: Chicago Public Schools spends more than $8 million on the Safe Passage program at 35 of its high schools. But Jadene Chow, the assistant head of security, says it's money well spent.
JADENE CHOW: In the current school year year-to-date, we've seen a 25 percent reduction in incidents at the schools where we have community watchers on duty during the hours that they're on duty.
SCHAPER: Safe Passage began a little over three years ago after the 2009 beating death of a high school student in a street brawl. That death was caught on video and went viral. Since then, the city has expanded Safe Passage and other strategies to reduce youth violence, costing the Chicago Public School system millions of dollars that might otherwise be spent on improving academics. But Harold Pollack of the University of Chicago's crime lab says the school system has no other choice.
HAROLD POLLACK: I think you're not going to be able to teach the three Rs to kids if they're in the atmosphere where they're not safe. And we have to pay the same attention to kids' social and emotional development that we are to their intellectual development, because otherwise we won't be able to make headway on either front.
SCHAPER: Pollack says the tricky part is making sure the money is spent on programs that are proven to work over time and reacting with urgency because too many kids in Chicago are still dying by gun violence. David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.