Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott visited schools to celebrate a new school year.
Pupils at a brand new school in Lower Manhattan were greeted on their first day back to school Thursday by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott and renowned architect Frank Gehry.
Gehry was on hand at the brick Spruce Street School because it occupies the bottom floors of a glass- and titanium-skinned residential tower that he designed. Gehry, Bloomberg, Walcott and other elected officials greeted arriving parents and children.
First-grader Rudy Matheson was impressed. "I want to see Frank Gehry,'' he said.
Gehry, whose best-known buildings include the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, said he'd never designed a building with a school in it before.
The Spruce Street School's 293 students were among the 1.1 million pupils returning to New York City classrooms Thursday. Asked what he would tell the youngsters, Bloomberg said, "It's never going to get any better than this. ... We all wish we were back in elementary school. Wouldn't it be wonderful?''
He downplayed a recent New York Times poll that found that most New Yorkers believe the public school system has stagnated or declined since he took control of it nine years ago.
"The fact of the matter is, more people show up every year, wanting to send their kids to New York City public schools,'' Bloomberg said. "In the end, polls don't really matter. It's what people do.''
Walcott told reporters: "It's an exciting day. My job is to maintain that excitement through the school year.'' Earlier, he made the rounds of students sitting in school's gleaming cafeteria waiting to go to their classrooms.
"My name is Dennis Walcott,'' he told one group. "You may see me popping around here now and then.''
Walcott is beginning his first full year as head of the public school system. He was appointed in April after the brief and rocky tenure of former publishing executive Cathie Black.
In what has become a tradition for chancellors on the first day of school, Walcott visited one school in each of the city's five boroughs. His second stop was the Bronx Academy of Letters, which serves about 600 students in grades 6 through 12.
He watched as 11th and 12th-graders in a U.S. history class drew maps of the United States, filling in as many geographical details as they could remember.
"I think it's kind of a great experience for us to see the new chancellor here,'' said student Astrid Delgado. "It's good for people to see what he does and how he's doing it so we can be inspired. ... At least he helped me with my map.''
Students in an advanced placement English class discussed "Into the Wild,'' Jon Krakauer's 1996 book about Chris McCandless' trek through Alaska, which ended in his death. They differed over whether McCandless was more foolhardy or brave.
"The wild was where he felt at home,'' Angelica Flores observed.
Walcott praised the class as "really outstanding.''
Activists leafleted outside the schools Walcott visited demanding that the city move faster to remove lighting fixtures tainted with the toxic chemicals known as PCBs from public schools.
City officials announced a 10-year plan in February to replace the aging fluorescent lights. The lighting fixtures can leak PCBs over time.
"We have an aggressive plan to address this,'' Walcott said. "We've set aside $800 million. We will notify parents if we find an environmental issue.''