A majority of Chicago's public school children return to school today, bringing to a close an acrimonious summer filled with budget cuts, union strife and a citywide debate over longer school days.

It's the second "first day" of school this year.  On Aug. 15, the 120,000 students at schools on year-round schedules returned to the classroom. The rest are following today.

"I think everybody is glad to see the young kids back in school. And with the economy the way it is, with so many parents struggling the way they are, school is probably the best place for them to be," Ald. Pat Dowell, 3rd, said Monday following a popular annual haircut and hairstyling event for Chicago youth at a South Side barbershop.

A new mayor and a leadership change atop CPS have raised the stakes for students this year. CPS chief <runtime:topic id="PEPLT00008421">Jean-Claude Brizard</runtime:topic> has swept into town on a wave of reforms to boost student performance, raise graduation rates, close the achievement gaps between white and minority students, while at the same time slashing costs at district headquarters.

Mayor <runtime:topic id="PEPLT000007532">Rahm Emanuel</runtime:topic> and Brizard continue to push for lengthening the school day by 90 minutes, arguing that a longer school day is a key component to improving student achievement.

The longer school days will arrive districtwide for the 2012-13 school year, Brizard said. The fight this year is heating up as three city elementary schools last week signed waivers releasing them from their union contract so that they can increase the school day in 2011-12.

On Monday, more than 300 children and teens packed Cain's Barber College on East 51st Street to receive free haircuts, a new hair style and donated book bags with school supplies. The 12th annual event, organized by community groups and local pastors, is like many back-to-school initiatives around the city that help parents prepare their children for school.

"Most young people want to have a fresh start at the beginning of the school year," Dowell said. "You want them feeling good about themselves and looking good and really being excited to be back."

Among the giveaways Tuesday, the <runtime:topic id="ORGOV000082">CTA</runtime:topic> is offering free subway and bus rides for schoolchildren and their parents.

<i><a href="mailto:jhood@tribune.com">jhood@tribune.com</a></i>