In front of hundreds of students, parents and community members, New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. on Sunday dedicated the city’s newly renovated Nathan Hale School.

The building reopened for students on the first day of the school year, Aug. 27, nearly 14 months after construction began. The $26 million renovation project was part of the city’s $1.15 billion school construction program. Nathan Hale is the 14th New Haven school to be renovated in the city’s school construction efforts, which began in 1995.

By 2011, the city plans to have rebuilt or renovated all 47 of its public schools.

Alongside DeStefano at the dedication were several speakers, including New Haven Superintendent of Schools Reginald Mayo and state Sen. Martin Looney. The school’s new principal, Kim Johnsky, was presented with a key to the front doors of the school.

Nathan Hale, originally 26,000 square feet, received a 69,000 square-foot addition as well as a several of renovations as part of the project. The revamped school includes a multi-level library and media center, a brand-new gymnasium, a performance space, air conditioning, science labs, art rooms and 250 new computers.

DeStefano described the citywide project as the “best physical plan in the state of Connecticut, period, end of story.” While he acknowledged other problems the city faces, he said there is “no better way to invest tax dollars than [to] see kids coming to school, ready to learn in a good environment.”

Students were especially excited about their new facilities. Eighth-grader Jocelyn Ferraro and seventh-grader Elizabeth Baptie described it as “very nice.” They said their favorite parts of the school were the enormous new gym and the hanging wire dolphins at the entrance, designed by local artist Peter Busby. Jaqueline Crocco, a sophomore at Wilbur Cross High School and recent graduate of Nathan Hale, said the newly renovated school was virtually unrecognizable.

“It’s beautiful. But it just doesn’t feel the same anymore, it’s such a dramatic change,” Crocco said.

Teachers were in awe of the dramatic change. Donna Jones, a second-grade teacher’s assistant, said the additions make a big difference not only in terms of teaching but in terms of the attitudes of students and teachers.

“The students have been so excited to come to school, and everyone just has more ‘up’ attitudes,” Jones said. “You can’t compare it to the old building — this is awesome.”

Some teachers were even in tears when they saw their new classrooms for the first time. Instead of having to put on plays and concerts at the University of New Haven, the drama teacher now has plenty of space in Nathan Hale’s performance center.

Following the main dedication ceremony, DeStefano and Mayo dedicated the school’s library in memory of the late Peter C. Villano, a New Haven man active in the public schools from 1967 to 2003 and who served as principal at Nathan Hale from 1987 to 1992. State Rep. Robert Megna described Villano as a “true public servant and a true believer in the democratic process.”

“You could call on Peter for everything,” added Mayo, before unveiling a plaque along the library wall commemorating Villano’s hard work.

DeStefano and other speakers repeatedly thanked Morris Cove residents for their support of the new school and for putting up with the inconveniences of construction. For example, the city purchased and demolished two neighborhood homes in order to make way for a new parking lot for school buses.

“Morris Cove has waited a long time for this day. Finally we have a school we can be proud of,” said Ward 17 Alderwoman Arlene DePino.