Although she was nowhere to be found Tuesday, it was impossible not to talk about the return of 155,000 students to classrooms in the Philadelphia School District without mentioning Arlene Ackerman.
Without mentioning the $905,000 buyout it took to force her out. Without mentioning the turmoil her time in Philadelphia caused and what her long, drawn-out exit threatened to do to the morale of the thousands of teachers, principals and others who will make sure schools welcome students with open arms today.
But despite the chaos, teachers insist morale has remained high and principals say the drama has not deterred them.
That doesn't mean they're not happy to see a drama-free start to a new school year, though.
"I think that there's a sense of relief that the entire story with Ackerman has played out," said Joseph Fafara, who was force-transferred to Dobbins High School from Germantown High this year. "The end of last year, with the layoffs and the acrimony and the drama of the summer, was more than anybody needed to have."
Staffers at the Joseph W. Catharine School in the far reaches of Southwest Philadelphia aren't only geographically removed from the chaos at district headquarters. They're mentally distant from it, too.
"Everything we do at this school is about the children," said principal Carol Kofsky, who's going into her eighth year at the K-5 school at 66th Street and Chester Avenue. "We don't worry about all that."
Kofsky said that Catharine's 45 teachers are "like a family" and that she's constantly looking outside the district for money to keep extracurricular programs, the arts and technology like interactive whiteboards in classrooms.
Kofsky said several teachers spent much of the summer - unpaid and unrequested - getting ready for the school year. Most spent last week preparing their classrooms and hallways with bold inspirational posters and "welcome" bulletin boards with every student's name.
"What happens with Dr. Ackerman doesn't affect us," fifth-grade teacher Jane Rubeo said as she tidied gift bags she prepared for her students. "This is just about our kids."
At Southwark Elementary School, 9th and Mifflin streets in South Philadelphia, freshly waxed floors and painted walls shined last week.
The walls were given a fresh coat of paint from volunteers from D.i.D., a health-care marketing company in Fort Washington, said principal Margaret Chin.
"They said our dragon, that's our school logo, looked too scary for children," she said. "So they painted a kid-friendly dragon for us."