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Students return to a rebuilt Barry Elementary

Waving to her second grader, an eager boy standing in the school yard looking up at his new teacher, Sasha Vann couldn't help but smile.

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter rings a bell to signal the start of school at the new Commodore Barry Elementary School in Philadelphia on the first day of class Thursday. (Laurence Kesterson / Inquirer)
Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter rings a bell to signal the start of school at the new Commodore Barry Elementary School in Philadelphia on the first day of class Thursday. (Laurence Kesterson / Inquirer)Read more

Waving to her second grader, an eager boy standing in the school yard looking up at his new teacher, Sasha Vann couldn't help but smile.

"I'm more excited than he is," Vann said, nodding at her son, Malik Johnson. "It's a new year. A new building. A new start."

More than 167,000 Philadelphia public school students returned to classrooms yesterday, including 650 who went back to Barry Elementary, a new $35 million structure in West Philadelphia.

In all, two new buildings - Barry and Audenried High School, in the Grays Ferry section of the city - opened yesterday, and about a dozen more schools opened additions, major renovations or new facilities. The district has committed $1.5 billion to capital projects.

Standing in a crooked line, Barry students said that the beginning of the year felt a little more special because of their new digs, an environmentally friendly building with skylights, outdoor roof decks, and a school yard made from recycled tires.

"It's nice, and I'm going to take care of it," promised Syniah Martinez, a second grader.

This first day was decades in the making for Ethel Jones, who has taught second grade at Barry for 22 years. The school at 59th and Race Streets shut down in December 2005 after a fire. Damage was so extensive that the district had to replace the building.

Students and teachers shuttled around the city until the old structure was torn down and the new one built on the same site. The old building was no prize, Jones said, with one bathroom for 700 students and a yard strewn with broken glass.

"I am so excited for this community," said Jones, wearing a green-and-white pantsuit and sandals. "We survived the fire and so much more."

As excited as she is about the new structure and the start of school, Jones also knows she has a challenge in front of her.

"We have to teach them how to love this building," she said of Barry students. "They're not used to new things."

Third grader Brandon Winfield thinks he's up to the challenge.

"I think the gym is going to be great," Brandon said. "I'm happy to go back to school."

Jasmine Winfield, Brandon's mother, is glad not just to see Brandon and his sister Enayah Cupit return to class. She's also grateful they're in the neighborhood.

"As a single parent, I need to be close," said Winfield, who relied on a SEPTA bus to get her children to school when Barry students were displaced. "I can walk them here."

While students wiggled in lines, a crowd of dignitaries who had converged on Barry to formally open the school year made speeches.

One of them, School Reform Commission chair Sandra Dungee Glenn, caught the students' attention. When she was a little girl, she attended Barry, too, she told them.

"The old Barry school wasn't like this," Dungee Glenn said. "It didn't have a library or a cafeteria or a gymnasium."

Superintendent Arlene Ackerman reminded the students that they were the best part of her job.

"I want you to work hard, because you can be anything you want to be," Ackerman said. "You are stars."

Mayor Nutter was late - he had to drop off his own public school student, eighth grader Olivia, at Masterman in Spring Garden. But he bounded onto the Barry playground enthusiastically, talking up a major education push he will make over the next week.

The mayor yesterday directed 80 senior staffers to schools around the city, welcoming students and making sure openings ran smoothly. Programs are under way aimed at his major goals for Philadelphia - cutting the dropout rate in half and doubling the number of people who earn college degrees.

"Education is at the center of everything we want to get done," Nutter said, adding that a more educated population would lower the crime rate and make the city more attractive to businesses. "The stars for us have aligned in a way they haven't in decades."

With his administration still in its first year, a new superintendent, and a governor with a sympathetic ear for Philadelphia issues, the time is now, Nutter said.

That's good news for Thomas and Katrina Carroll, parents of fifth grader David. They had considered leaving for the suburbs but reconsidered when they heard he could learn in a brand-new Barry.

Thomas Carroll started getting teary as he watched David march through the double doors and into a new year.

"Be a leader," Carroll told his son. "Don't follow anyone."

Katrina Carroll said she was hoping for a firm teacher who challenged her shy son, a bright boy she hopes will follow his sister to college.

"The neighborhood's not so good," Thomas Carroll said, "but what's coming out of it could be great."

New Philadelphia Schools

Two opened new buildings: Barry Elementary in West Philadelphia and Audenried High in Grays Ferry.

Four opened additions: H.A. Brown, Forrest, Lawton, Ziegler.

Ten completed major renovations: Carver High School of Engineering and Science, Girard Academy Music Program, Gratz High School, Mastbaum Vo-Tech High, McDaniel Elementary, Parkway and AMY at Sulzberger, Academy at Palumbo, Roxborough High School, Rush Creative and Performing Arts (conversion to a high school from a middle school), West Philadelphia Auto Academy.

Two new schools are scheduled to open in fall 2009: Fels and Lincoln High Schools.

Two projects are in the design phase (no scheduled opening date): Willard Elementary and West Philadelphia High School.

All work was funded through a $1.5 billion capital projects budget.

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