The mayor and the superintendent and a lot of important people in fancy clothes were on hand at Pennell Elementary School on Tuesday to officially mark the start of the 2017-18 school year in the Philadelphia School District.

But no one summarized the hopes of the crowd — and the city — better than Honesti Davis, 7, a brand-new second grader with a wide, warm smile.

"I think it's going to be a great year," said Honesti. "I think I'm going to do good at math and at writing in my journal, and at art."

Philadelphia School Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. leans down to tie the shoe of Carl Stevenson, 6, as they get ready to celebrate the first day of school at Pennell Elementary.
MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Philadelphia School Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. leans down to tie the shoe of Carl Stevenson, 6, as they get ready to celebrate the first day of school at Pennell Elementary.

Since Hite came to Philadelphia five years ago, the district has invested $526 million in everything from an early literacy program to ninth-grade academies at the city's large high schools. It has also spent money on restoring nurses and counselors to every school — those professionals had been cut from many buildings during lean financial times.

Hite led with a message he said would be a constant this school year — a focus on getting children to show up for school, a struggle for many urban districts. The school system and the city will partner for an attendance push, Hite has said.

"I want you to be an attendance hero," Hite told a class of second graders sitting on a multi-colored rug at his feet. "We know that in order to achieve, you have to be in school."

Mayor Kenney urged the students to "enjoy this year" and promised them that if they focused on school, he would focus on getting them the things they needed.

The mayor also gave a shoutout to city teachers, who for the first time in years are not "drifting in the wilderness," Kenney said. After a stalemate of nearly five years, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers ratified a contract in June.

Jerry Jordan, president of the PFT, was on hand to ring a bell at Pennell as well.

Jordan only decided late Monday that Muñoz-Marín Elementary was safe for his members to work in. The North Philadelphia school had a mold outbreak over the summer, and the union was unsatisfied with the cleanup efforts until a final inspection on Monday; Jordan said the Muñoz-Marín problems could have been avoided with better preventive maintenance. He also said he was disappointed that teachers did not have time to prepare their classrooms before students arrived.

District officials, who said they offered teachers extra pay to set up classrooms over the weekend, disagreed with the union's characterization of the situation and said they made it clear to the union that the building would be ready for the first day of school.

The district chose Pennell, on Nedro Avenue in East Germantown,  to host its annual back-to-school bell ringing (there were actual bells rung by dignitaries and children) because it is one of eight schools selected for a $5 million classroom modernization project. The school's pre-kindergarten through second-grade rooms received total overhauls, from fresh paint to new technology aimed at boosting literacy rates.

Principal Jason Harris, who has led Pennell for seven years, said the investment would give the school a boost.

"The biggest barrier we had was the environment," said Harris of the pre-K-to-5 school with 400 students. "Now, it's about capitalizing on these resources."

There's something about a fresh start, a school full of kids entering class for the first of 180-plus days, said Harris.

"Every year, I still get nervous, I still get excited, I still get butterflies," he said.

Kenney and Hite zig-zagged the city Tuesday, shaking hands, asking about college plans, and even, in the superintendent's case, eating a school lunch.

At midday, officials converged on George Washington High in the Northeast. Washington is one of the city's new community schools, where city funds will be spent to concentrate social services and other resources. There are 11 citywide.

Washington art teacher Alisha Hagelin, who showed off a vibrant mural her students designed and painted in the spring, said the year has a new vibe — in part because of a turnaround in climate and culture at the school, in part because of a new Advanced Placement art class she's teaching, and in part because of the community school designation.

Plus, she said, it's a relief to have a contract after almost five years of a frozen salary.

"I feel excited this year," Hagelin said. "I feel like everything's up from here; we can be cautiously optimistic."

Though teachers, students and officials sounded notes of optimism and excitement, the school system must brace for some turmoil this year. Hite will decide this fall whether to recommend school closings — the district's long-term plan calls for three a year – and though the system is in decent financial shape at the moment, it will soon run a deficit.