Storyee Robinson couldn't believe what she saw when she stepped inside the new, $30.3 million Willard Elementary School in Kensington Tuesday morning.

There was a gymnasium. An instructional music room. A science lab. An auditorium. Classrooms with electronic whiteboards. And an inviting cafeteria with soaring, clerestory windows.

It had taken more than a decade to replace the outmoded and overcrowded 1907 Willard School where children had to eat lunch at their desks and were tutored in hallways. The new school opened too late for Robinson's three oldest grandchildren, but at least her youngest, Keaira Rankins, 9, would attend.

"The wait was worth it," Robinson said. "This is beautiful!"

Mayor Nutter and Superintendent Arlene Ackerman opened the 2010-11 academic year for 163,000 Philadelphia students Tuesday at Willard in a ceremony that combined the district's traditional bell-ringing with a ribbon-cutting of the gleaming building at 1930 E. Elkhart St.

"What a wonderful way to start this new school year," said Robert L. Archie Jr., chairman of the School Reform Commission, who participated in the program with commission member Denise McGregor Armbrister.

Nutter congratulated the Willard students.

"This is what happens when parents, the community, the school district, and everyone gets involved," he said. "The result is a beautiful new school."

Hundreds of thousands of area students returned to school Tuesday. The 72,000 enrolled in Roman Catholic schools in the five-county Archdiocese of Philadelphia are scheduled to start classes Wednesday.

After attending the ceremonies and a reception for parents and community members at Willard, Ackerman visited Vaux High School and Dunbar Academy. The two North Philadelphia schools are among six new Promise Academies that will receive extra resources and support as part of Ackerman's academic-improvement initiative.

Also Tuesday, fathers, grandfathers, and other male relatives accompanied children to their first day at city schools in the fourth annual Million Father March sponsored by the House of Umoja Inc. in West Philadelphia.

"It is encouraging to see the community give support," said Queen Mother Falaka Fattah, founder and executive director of the House of Umoja, which organized the event in conjunction with a nationwide effort promoting violence-free schools. "It lets the kids know that this is something special."

At Willard, community activists, parents, and district officials recalled the long, tortuous path that finally led to a new building for 850 children from kindergarten to fourth grade.

Michael Lerner, president of the union that represents district administrators, said he attended a meeting to discuss a new Willard in 1970.

"I guess all good things come to those who wait," Lerner told the gathering.

The Rev. Donald T. Graff, vicar of the nearby Free Church of St. John and a longtime advocate of a new Willard, said in an interview that the movement did not gain traction until 1998-99.

"The conversations really got serious about 11 years ago, when Tomas Hanna became principal," Graff said.

Hanna, now the district's associate superintendent of academic support, said Willard was much larger then and was so overcrowded that students were spread among three annexes and a trailer.

"We said, 'Let's get all the students in one place, and let's make sure that when they are in one place we have all the amenities,' " Hanna said.

The old Willard a block away had no lunchroom, auditorium, library, or art room. A room in the basement was used for gym. Students were tutored in the hallways.

"We were thinking of a gym and a great art room with north light," said Hanna who was at Willard for a year before he was reassigned.

Graff said the building plan "moved forward, and then it stalled." He said the project regained steam when Hanna became an administrator under chief executive Paul Vallas.

The project landed in the district's long-range capital budget, and is one of the final construction projects from Vallas' $1.5 billion capital budget.

But problems finding a suitable site caused delays. The district finally acquired from the city a 5-acre parcel that had housed the Franklin Recreation Center. But the site also had been a cemetery, so construction halted when human remains were found. The district had to get Orphans Court approval to move them.

On Tuesday, Hanna stood in front of the new building.

Although the district had scrapped plans to add a third story to house additional grades, he said the design remains the same as teachers, community members, and architects settled on 11 years ago.