LOWER MANHATTAN — Nervous and excited, clutching parents' hands and racing ahead to greet their friends, students at Downtown's Spruce Street School crossed the threshold of their brand-new building for the first time Thursday morning.
Inside the new 630-seat school, which was designed by Frank Gehry and sits in the base of his New York by Gehry apartment tower, flashbulbs popped and a crowd of grinning politicians, including Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott, offered handshakes and high-fives.
"It's euphoric," said Spruce Principal Nancy Harris, who has run the school in temporary space for the past two years while waiting for the new building to be ready.
"The reality, or surreality, of it all is just completely emotionally overwhelming. Seeing these kids in this space... " Harris broke off and shook her head, smiling, then turned to welcome more children and parents.
Shortly after arriving at their new school Thursday morning, many students gave it an enthusiastic thumbs-up.
"I like it," said Natalie, a second grader. "There's kids, and you've got a playground. I like the school a lot."
Matthew, another second grader, added, "It's good because I get to see all my friends again."
Nicolas Heron, 39, a TriBeCa resident, said his twins, Sam and Mia, who started kindergarten Thursday, have been excitedly watching the rise of the Gehry's rippling apartment tower above their new school.
"They can see it from everywhere," Heron said. "They say, 'This is our school! This is where we're going!'"
The Spruce Street School will serve about 280 students in pre-K to second grade this year. P.S. 94, a special education school for children with autism that shares the Spruce building, has roughly two-dozen students. Both schools will grow to fill their new space over the next few years.
While many local officials joined Bloomberg and Walcott at the Spruce opening, Council Speaker Christine Quinn and United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew were notably absent — they chose to mark the first day of school at P.S. 187 in Washington Heights.
Mulgrew's spokesman said the separate school visits were "a logistical issue."
A small group of protesters also attended the Spruce opening, targeting Walcott for not inspecting schools that may be contaminated with toxic PCB leaks. Walcott greeted the protesters but did not respond to them.
In brief speeches in the school's lobby, Bloomberg and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver both tied the Spruce Street School's opening just a few blocks from the World Trade Center site to the upcoming 10th anniversary of 9/11. Silver said the opening of a new school is "the most eloquent way to declare victory for lower Manhattan."
Some parents, too, said the opening of Spruce made them realize how far their Downtown neighborhood had come in the past 10 years.
"It's fantastic to see the Downtown area really growing," said Emily Davis, a Financial District resident whose son started second grade Thursday.
"Having this new school really ties the community together."