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Chicopee Woods teachers working up some Christmas cheer
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Teachers at Chicopee Woods Elementary wrap presents for gift boxes Friday, Dec. 13, 2018, the school is preparing for families of students at the school. Almost 95 percent of students at the school qualify for free or reduced lunches.

At principal Jamie Hitzges’ suggestion, teachers at Chicopee Woods Elementary School rode through their students’ neighborhoods last year in an attempt to get them excited for the upcoming school year. They weren’t expecting what they found.

“As we go out and visit those neighborhoods and where our students are living, we can see their living conditions and where they’re living,” said Alisha Buffington, a science teacher at the school. “We know our students are in need.”

Almost 95 percent of students at the school qualify for free or reduced meals, according to Hitzges. Almost 85 percent of the student body is Hispanic, and 78 percent are English language learners, according to the Georgia Department of Education.

That’s one of the many reasons why the school and other partners in the community came together to host a Christmas Block Party, complete with holiday activities, games, food, giveaways, music and student performances Dec. 18 at Chicopee Village.

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Chicopee Woods Elementary's Kelley Trippe counts jars of peanut butter for gift boxes Friday, Dec. 13, 2018. The school will deliver 100 of the boxes of meals and a few gifts and necessities to families of students at the school. - photo by Scott Rogers

“In a nutshell, we're trying to bring Christmas magic to our kids who may not get the same opportunities to experience Christmas,” said Matt Yeary, a third-grade teacher at the school.

And preparations are well underway ahead of the party. The school has been hosting a food drive, collecting different foods that will then be distributed to students at the school who are in most need.

There’s quite a haul to get through — 140 families will receive a box full of foods and snacks to enjoy over Christmas break. Each box will be wrapped in holiday paper and delivered by teachers the morning of the block party.

“Our students, they do depend on our meals here at school at breakfast and lunch,” Yeary said. “So when school stops, that food may be stopping or be limited. So this is just a way to help that. It’s not going to cover the whole break, but it’s going to give the children some type of food to eat while they're away from us.”

After that, Chicopee Woods will send out eight school buses to pick up families from around the community. This year’s block party is bigger than the party last year, when the school only sent out three buses.

“That’s one of the biggest things our parents have trouble with is (they have) either no license or they don’t have a car,” said Erika Word, a third-grade teacher. “We didn’t want to limit them to not be able to come because they couldn’t walk there.”

Yeary said the school’s motto this year is, “Every person matters. Every minute counts.” By having this block party, he said the school is living that motto by helping the students and families that are a part of the school — even when school is out of session.

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Chicopee Woods Elementary's Cara Hicks counts donated food items Friday, Dec. 14, 2018, as the school prepares 100 food and gift boxes to give to families of students at the school. - photo by Scott Rogers

“We’re giving to them in other types of ways,” Yeary said. “We don't just want to spend time with them teaching math. We want to share with them and just really spend time getting to know them, their culture, what they do outside of school and also really just enjoy time with each other that’s not academic.”

Beyond the block party, Hitzges said there will be other ways teachers can connect with students throughout the year.

Embracing the students’ culture is one of those ways they’re trying to be deliberate in the way they connect. For example, instead of a traditional Halloween celebration this year, the school had a Día de los Muertos celebration, embracing the culture that’s representative of the school.

“We’ve done a whole lot more as of late,” Hitzges said. “It’s kind of been organic the way it’s happened … We’re trying to be deliberate about it, but it came from an organic place where we all saw the need and kind of jumped in.”

At the block party, Posadas Navideñas, a Mexican tradition, will be worked into the celebration.

“A lot of our families participate in it and it’s really bringing knowledge and awareness to our staff,” Yeary said. “We’re not just going to do the American celebrations.”

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Teachers at Chicopee Woods Elementary wrap packages and prepare food for gift boxes Friday, Dec. 13, 2018, as they will hand out 100 of the boxes of meals to needy families of their students. The school is also planning a Christmas celebration for teachers, students and families. - photo by Scott Rogers
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