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Peralta Elementary School principal Rosette Costello welcomes her studnts, teachers and parents on the first day of classes in the school's temporary home at the former Carter Middle School, Tuesday, April 3, 2007 in Oakland, Calif. The school's normal campus was heavily damaged by an arson fire last month. (D. Ross Cameron/The Oakland Tribune)
OAKLAND — On Tuesday morning, Peralta Elementary children experienced the newness of the first day of school — the nervous energy, the hovering parents, the organized chaos.

Teachers holding bright yellow signs showed wide-eyed children to their classrooms. Older kids speed-walked around the building, exploring the possibilities their new space might contain.

It was a typical scene, but for August — not April.

Peralta Elementary School resumed classes Tuesday, a week after an arson fire blackened its colorful walls and stunned the community. After learning that the Rockridge-area facility could take months to repair, teachers, parents and school district employees made a temporary home out of the old Carter Middle School campus in North Oakland.

Peralta will remain at 4521 Webster St. until summer, at least.

On Tuesday, as children approached the entrance, they were greeted by Kathy Rieves, co-chair of the school's parent-teacher group.

"Good morning, dear. Go get your new T-shirt," she instructed one boy, a smile belying her fatigue.

Around 9 a.m., after the children had settled into their classrooms, Principal Rosette Costello held an assembly to help them feel comfortable in their new surroundings.

Standing below the lofty ceiling of the multipurpose room, Costello looked out at the rows of children in yellow Peralta T-shirts.

"In this room, I feel really, really small," she told them. "I feel really tiny. You know why? It's big."

But, the principal soon added, "This school is very much like Peralta in a very important way, and that important way is that we are together here."

Some of the older children said that although they were upset and angry about the fire, they liked their temporary school.

"There's more space to play here than at the other school," said one 12-year-old as she walked to class with two friends.

Judging from descriptions of how the place looked just three days earlier, she might have felt differently if it weren't for the grueling revitalization effort that occurred over the weekend.

The dramatic makeover of the once-dingy facility — and the "Peralta Rising" fundraising campaign announced in a news conference — highlighted the incalculable value of a dedicated, organized, media-savvy parent network.

Just days after the fire, hundreds of parents, teachers and neighbors power-washed the dirty walls and concrete walkways, cleaned lockers and bathrooms, painted benches, trimmed trees, planted flowers, removed graffiti and hung artwork.

With help from parents, teachers brought uninspired classrooms to life. Children created cheerful paintings for the walls.

"Parents swarmed this place," said Ellen Oppenheimer, an art teacher at the school, who described the Carter campus — before the improvements — as "depressing" and "dysfunctional."

Marveling at the community's accomplishments, she said, "It should happen all the time. It shouldn't take a fire."

The Oakland school district has allocated $750,000 for the Peralta restoration project. The parent-teacher group hopes to raise $75,000 more by June 1 for "Peraltification" efforts.

By Tuesday, the group announced it had already raised $25,000, including a $5,000 donation from the Oakland Athletics.

More information about the

"Peralta Rising" campaign can be found at peraltaschool.org. Donations can be made online or sent to the Peralta Parent Teacher Group, in care of Kathy Rieves and Christopher Waters, to "Peralta at Carter Middle School," 4521 Webster St., Oakland 94609.

E-mail Katy Murphy at kmurphy@oaklandtribune.com.