The promise of the first day of school was captured Tuesday by Alonzo Bruton — 5 years old, wearing a backpack almost as large as he was, and ready to conquer kindergarten.
“I like learning,” said Alonzo, who attends Robert Morris Elementary in North Philadelphia.
The district has hired 700 new educators, some of them for new positions. It is adding teachers for English-language learners, social workers, and nurses. It also added air-conditioning at six schools, though the vast majority of district buildings remain un-air conditioned.
This will be a crucial year for the school system, as it embarks on a comprehensive planning process to address enrollment shifts citywide. Officials have said some schools could close as a result of the work, which will take place over several years. Other schools might open, and school boundaries could change.
Back at Morris, London Gant said she had a good summer, but was also looking forward to fifth grade.
“I plan on being a fashion designer, but I can’t be one if I don’t know the academics behind it,” London said.
Superintendent William R. Hite Jr., Mayor Jim Kenney, and other dignitaries gathered at Morris, at 26th and Thompson Streets, for the city’s bell-ringing, and Kenney underscored the importance of what district staff and students were about to embark upon.
Educating children is "the most important thing we do,” the mayor said, adding that if Philadelphia does it well, “we won’t have to worry about prisons. We won’t have to worry about addiction. We won’t have to worry about locking people up.”
Joyce Wilkerson, school board president, gave students a pep talk. Morris has 240 students in grades K-5.
“Make a resolution to go to school every day,” Wilkerson told the students. “Work hard, have goals for yourself. It’s important.”
Carolyn Williams, beginning her fifth year as Morris’ principal, was unruffled by the commotion around her. She smiled at every student she saw.
“It’s going to be a great year at Robert Morris!” Williams called. “Learning starts on day one!”
Setting the tone for the school year is important, said Williams.
“You want to start on a high note,” she said. “We want our students to know we expect them to be great — every single one.”
Morris is one of 12 district schools that was part of a $32 million classroom modernization project, receiving new technology, furniture, lighting and more in some rooms.
Later, Hite and Kenney stopped at McClure Elementary in Hunting Park, newly designated as a community school, chosen to receive city resources funded by Philadelphia’s sweetened-beverages tax.
Pre-kindergarten students sang a song welcoming visitors in English and Spanish.
Art teacher Becky Naughton confessed to a few first-day nerves, even 15 years into her teaching career.
“I still get butterflies,” Naughton said. She showed the mayor and superintendent around her room, saying she was excited that McClure students have the benefit of both art and music classes, plus exposure to full-time teaching artist Norah Gunn, whose position is funded through AmeriCorps. Gunn specializes in textiles and sculpture.
In all, the superintendent visited seven schools Tuesday. At a late-morning stop at Fels High School in the Northeast, he grabbed lunch with school board member Leticia Egea-Hinton and a group of students. (Hite had a wrap, Egea-Hinton chose salad.)
Sophomore Niaysia Boykin wasn’t sorry to say goodbye to summer, she said.
“It feels nice, in all honesty, to be back. Though I am a little worried because the classes I have are hard," said Boykin, who has a roster full of honors courses and even her first Advanced Placement class, U.S. History.
Monitoring the lunchroom with a walkie-talkie and a smile, third-year Fels principal Lillian Izzard said she thought the year would be a good one, despite some challenges.
“I’m always nervous about attendance and parental involvement,” said Izzard, who fashioned her school’s budget this year so she could afford an extra staffer to help engage families. “But there’s a lot to be excited about, too.”
The day was bittersweet for some.
Tanieda Lee, Alonzo’s mom, looked at her kindergartner and said it was clear he was now a big kid.