NEW ORLEANS – Greeted by welcome signs hung over the door and in the hallways, students began returning Monday to the first regular public school to reopen since Hurricane Katrina hit three months ago.
"The main thing is, the kids want to be home," Tony Collins said as he brought his son, James, a fifth-grader. He said he will be dropping off James — who used to attend a different school — every day at Ben Franklin Elementary School as he commutes from Baton Rouge, where he has been staying since the storm hit.
After bringing James to school, Collins will head out to his eastern New Orleans home, which he is trying to salvage while on leave from his job.
Kindergarten through sixth-grade students began arriving shortly before 8 a.m. at the three-story brick building in the uptown area that was relatively unscathed by the storm.
"I'm glad to be back," said George Lee III, a 9-year-old who walked in with his mother, Darlene Thomas. She must catch two buses each day to get George to the school from their home in mid-city, but she said it is a trip she gladly makes.
"It's exciting to have him back in school," she said.
About 120 students showed up Monday. Ben Franklin Elementary was open to any city students from kindergarten to sixth grade, and some 210 youngsters had been registered at the end of last week. Principal Christine Mitchell speculated that some parents registered to hold a spot and that attendance will grow.
Before Katrina, it was one of the city's best — a math-science magnet school with 390 students from preschool through eighth grade. Children were noticeably more shy than their parents as they ran a gantlet of news reporters and television crews outside the school. First to arrive were 12-year-old Kenneth and 7-year-old Branden Galeano, with their father, Jorge.
Kenneth said he'd been going to school in Tennessee since his family evacuated. Asked what he thought of that school, he said it was, "good, but not that much."
Some private schools in New Orleans began reopening in October, but no public schools had opened, with the exception of two charters that are outside the local board's control.
"This signals that school is up and running, and that's a good thing," Orleans Parish School Board member Heidi Daniels said.
Leslie Jacobs, a member of the state school board, said the importance of Franklin's opening is largely symbolic. Since the semester is all but over, she said, she has told parents they should keep children in whatever schools they currently attend until the holiday break.
"I think the real significance comes in January," she said. "There's a limit to what can be done three weeks before the end of semester. In January, I think there are 17 schools slated to be opened."
On Sunday, Mayor Ray Nagin appeared at a town hall meeting in Houston, where many Katrina evacuees went, citing progress in some city services and imploring displaced residents to join in the process of rebuilding.
"If we don't unify, we will never come back to the New Orleans we all want to come back to," he said. "I know there is frustration out there. I can only do so much. I need your help."
Ingrid LeBlanc, living in Houston with eight other family members, told Nagin she wants to return to her hometown and rebuild. But she has concerns about the levees and whether officials have decided some neighborhoods, including her own, won't be rebuilt.
"I want to go back. I need to know where I stand," she said.
Nagin reassured LeBlanc, 54, that all of New Orleans is going to be rebuilt. "We need to rebuild the levees," he said. "We need to solve the housing issues and we need to create a tax incentive environment to encourage businesses (and people) to come back."