Students at Housatonic Valley Regional High School left school today with warm feelings and smiles on their faces—and not because today marks the start of winter break. Faculty, staff, and administrators had all pitched in to create a celebration that made students feel like they truly belong and are valued members of their school community.
“A few weeks ago a few of us were talking about how this last day before the holiday break is a full day this year, and how difficult it would be to maintain learning past a certain point in the day,” says Dr. Scott Fellows, the school’s Mathematics Department chair.
Fellows, who has taught at Housatonic Valley Regional High School (HVRHS) in Region One for 31 years, and other long-time teachers remembered that decades ago the school used to kickoff holiday break with band and chorus performances and a visit from Santa, who would hand out gifts to students.
“We decided to reinvent that tradition and bring it back, not as a Christmas celebration, but as a way of letting students know, ‘We care about you and we want you to be safe for the next two weeks and come back happy, healthy, and ready for learning,'” says Fellows.
Housatonic Valley Regional Faculty Association President and Title I teacher Beth Foulds says that in the rural area of northwestern Connecticut where the school is located there are not many safe out-of-school activities for students, who now won’t be back in class until January 6.
“Two summers ago we lost several students to car accidents,” Foulds says. “Our concern is always having our kids come back safe to us.”
Fellows adds that the other focus of today’s celebration was to make the holidays brighter for students whose families sometimes go without.
“People wouldn’t imagine it out here, but we have a lot of invisible poverty,” Foulds says.
“In past years we’ve done collections for students and families in need, but this year we thought—how can we be more inclusive of more of the student body while still providing for the families who are in the most need?'” adds Foulds.
Fellows and Special Education Department Chair Liam O’Reilly spearheaded today’s celebration. Faculty pitched in and donated almost $800, while businesses in the community generously gave 25 $25 gift cards for the school to raffle off or award as prizes.
“When kids arrived at the gymnasium this afternoon they each got a HVRHS scarf, winter hat, and baseball cap. During all of the games we randomly tossed out t-shirts and sweatshirts, and on the way out all students got milk and cookies,” says Foulds. “Faculty members even made gluten-free and vegan cookies that many students chose as well.”
Faculty and staff organized a variety of fun contests where teams from each grade competed against one another. “The World Languages department had a game with lyrics to winter holiday songs written out in different languages, and students had to figure out what the song was in under a minute,” Fellows explains. “Paras put together an activity where a group of four students had to work together to wrap two students linking arms in holiday paper and those students then had to run together across the gym with bows on their heads holding a gift.”
Student attendance was a clear marker of the success of today’s event, Fellows says. “Normally kids would have been signing out all day, but the celebration kept students here.”
This whole week has been marked by expressions of caring at HVRHS. Foulds came up with the idea of having every student in the school receive a personalized note from an administrator, faculty, or staff member. Each educator chose the students they would write notes for, and every single student got a note on Monday.
“The students loved them, they absolutely loved them, they were jumping around the room,” says Foulds.
Students have also been celebrating their community and giving back this week by purchasing gifts for less fortunate children and making donations to a local food pantry.
After the success of today’s celebration, educators are also heading off to break with warm feelings from a job well done.
“Our superintendent remarked that today’s event was fantastic. She said that our kids were leaving for break feeling like they really belong here,” says Fellows.
“So many adults in the building pitched in to make today a success,” says Foulds. “It was really nice to see everyone come together that way.”
“That’s what our culture is like here,” says Fellows. “People pitch in and do what needs to be done because it’s for the kids, and we really care about them.”