Mayor Rahm Emanuel wants to slap a $6 million tax on cigars, roll-your-own tobacco and smokeless tobacco to pay for a one-week summer transition program for all incoming high school freshmen and two weeks of summer school for eighth-graders identified as drop-out risks — even as the district braces for mass cuts to existing programs and staff.

Supporting freshmen while they are making a traumatic transition from nurturing grade schools to large high schools has long been a focus of the Chicago Public Schools. But the “Freshman Connection” high school programs, which begin this summer, have been limited to selective enrollment schools.

Emanuel’s plan would expand the one-week orientation program to all 20,000 incoming high school freshmen. The program will be modeled after the one pioneered by Walter Payton College Prep, the No. 1 high school in the state. Janice Jackson, CPS’ top academic officer, said students will do typical orientation activities — like learn where things are in their new schools.

“But the majority of the time will be spent on reinforcing academic values of the school and some of the social-emotional supports that students will need to make the transition,” Jackson said. Schools will decide when in the summer to hold the classes, which CPS will promote.

“What’s critical is that the teachers managing the program have to be teachers within the school and should be the freshmen teachers that those the students themselves will see in the fall,” she said. “That’s when it works best.”

Almost 3,000 incoming eighth-graders have been identified by the University of Chicago’s Urban Labs as at risk of dropping out before they even get to high school.

They’ll be in line for a new, intensive, two-week remediation program this summer. The U. of C. will work with the Chicago Public Schools to both pinpoint participants based on grades and attendance, and “design interventions that would support kids moving forward at a faster rate,” Urban Labs Director Tim Knowles said.

“That’s smart,” Knowles said. “If you’re going to move to a 90 percent graduation rate over the next several years, you can’t wait until ninth grade.”

But he urged for follow-up data to be provided regularly for their teachers, saying that “two weeks for the summer has to be part of a broader strategy.”

As for the expanded ninth-grade offerings, Knowles said, “The question is going to be, how intense is it? How many days? Whether the schools can get all the kids, not just the low-hanging fruit — the kids who will come — but the kids who are really most at risk? And over time, what the impact will be, obviously.”

Emanuel campaigned for re-election on an ambitious education agenda that called for putting a “special focus” high school within 3 miles of every family, freeing top-performing schools from burdensome mandates and achieving an 85 percent graduation rate by the end of his second term in 2019.

Both programs will be paid for by slapping a $6 million tax on tobacco products that have escaped taxes heaped on cigarettes. Specifically, the tax plan includes:

  • 15 cents on every mini-cigar. That would raise the average price of a pack of 20 mini-cigars from $5.79 to $8.79. Chicago already levies a tax of $7.17 per pack on cigarettes, the highest in the nation.
  • 90 cents on every full-sized cigar. That would raise the average price of a two-pack of cigars from $2.25 to $4.05.
  • $6.60 on every ounce of roll-your-own tobacco. That would raise the average price of a small pouch of tobacco from $7.25 to $11.54.
  • $1.80 on every ounce of smokeless chewing tobacco sold in cans. That would raise the average price of a 1.2-ounce can from $4.19 to $6.35.

Tobacco products have long been one of Emanuel’s favorite taxing targets.

Since taking office in 2011, the mayor has pursued a sweeping anti-smoking agenda that includes imposing the nation’s highest cigarette tax; banning e-cigarettes wherever smoking is prohibited; moving them behind the counter of retail stores; snuffing out sales to minors; and banning the sale of flavored tobacco products within 500 feet of schools.

The mayor’s tax-laden, 2016 budget included a $1 million tax on e-cigarettes. At the time, Ald. Proco Joe Moreno (1st), who is frequently seen with a pinch of tobacco between his lip and gum, urged the mayor to tax smokeless tobacco.

Moreno has agreed to co-sponsor the mayor’s plan, along with Ald. Will Burns (4th), who is the chairman of the City Council’s education committee.

The decision to dramatically expand summer school offerings comes at a perilous time for the Chicago Public Schools.

Schools CEO Forrest Claypool is poised to lay off 5,000 teachers on Feb. 8 if he doesn’t get $480 million in pension help from Springfield already built into the school budget.

Gov. Bruce Rauner reiterated last week that he would not ride to the rescue of Chicago Public Schools unless Emanuel leans on House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) to drop his opposition to the governor’s anti-union, pro-business agenda. So long as the marathon state budget stalemate drags on, CPS will have to go it alone, the governor said.

The Chicago Teachers Union has also voted overwhelmingly to authorize the city’s second teachers strike in four years after rejecting Claypool’s demand to phase out a 7 percent pension pickup. That would require teachers to take a pay cut.

The union has exacerbated political tensions by joining calls for Emanuel to resign for his handling of the Laquan McDonald shooting video.

In light of all that, the question could legitimately be asked why CPS is taking on any new programs when it cannot pay for what already exists.

The answer is part education and part political.

Black voters who elected Emanuel in 2011 and re-elected him even after he closed a record 50 public schools are furious with the mayor for keeping the police dashcam video that showed Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke firing 16 shots at Laquan McDonald under wraps for more than a year and for waiting until one week after the election to authorize a $5 million settlement before the McDonald family had even filed a lawsuit.

The video was released in late November, only after a judge ordered the city to do so. On the same day, Van Dyke was charged with first-degree murder in the McDonald shooting.

Emanuel has spent the last few weeks trying to persuade African-American voters to give him a third chance.

Most recently, he doled out $5.5 million in reparations to 57 victims of the Jon Burge torture era, expanded the CTA’s Second Chance program for ex-offenders and cut the ribbon on the new, $251 million Malcolm X College.

The summer school offerings for at-risk, inner-city kids are an apparent effort to build even more political good will and help deliver the mayor’s campaign promise.