Ringing giant bells and declaring optimism, School Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. and Mayor Kenney formally opened the 2016-17 school year for 130,000 Philadelphia students Wednesday.

"Nothing excites me more than the first day of school," Hite said from the steps of Hill-Freedman World Academy in East Mount Airy.

The school system is in its strongest position in years, he said, pointing to investments in new textbooks, technology, and other resources not seen in city schools since the advent of a brutal budget crisis several years ago.

Kenney, who has made education a centerpiece of his administration, also struck a hopeful note.

"I don't want anyone to tell me that this beautiful group of students can't achieve," Kenney said.

Under Kenney, Philadelphia became the first major U.S. city to enact a soda tax. That will pay for expanding pre-kindergarten and creating community schools, among other projects.

Hill-Freedman, now on Mount Pleasant Avenue in the old Leeds Middle School building, is a unique school; it educates students in grades 6-12, and takes both students who are strong academically and those with special needs. This year, it also absorbed seventh and eighth graders from Leeds, a neighborhood school whose program was closed by the School Reform Commission.

"It's just a big wow," principal Anthony Majewski said of the scene: dignitaries shaking his students' hands, with all eyes on the expanded school, which cost $7.5 million to spruce up. (The school also received a $2 million grant from the nonprofit Philadelphia School Partnership for its expansion.)

City Councilman Derek S. Green was also jazzed about the opening of the school, but for a special reason - his son was entering Hill-Freedman as a ninth grader in an autistic support class.

"Unfortunately, you hear a lot of negative things about the School District," said Green. "This is very positive."

(Not quite all positive. His son's bus never arrived, so Green dropped him off at school himself.)

Though the School District is in a relatively good spot financially, with full-time nurses and counselors now in every building, its five-year plan includes a deficit in the final years.

"We have challenges on the horizon, but just seeing the new water fountains and the new books, I feel a sense of pride and excitement," Green said.

Officials zig-zagged through the city, touring schools and asking students about their college plans all day.

At Dobbins Career and Technical Education High School in North Philadelphia, senior Janaye Johnson led Hite, Kenney, and Council President Darrell L. Clarke around.

She was thrilled to show visitors the school, one of the inaugural nine community schools designated by the city.

The district is spending $50 million on the building on Lehigh Avenue, replacing its roof, installing new windows, and making other fixes.

"It's really good for the students and their families," Johnson said.

The attention was great, she said.

For the vast majority of Philadelphia's schoolchildren, the first day happened away from the cameras and dignitaries. But it was still a blank page, full of promise.

On the second floor of Hill-Freedman, junior Jasmine Lee-Shockley yelped with joy when she spotted Hannah Zieve, an English and history teacher.

"My favorite teacher," Lee-Shockley said. "I'm so excited!"

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