Asked what he likes best about Thanksgiving, Lincoln Clarke didn't hesitate. "Family," answered 10-year-old Lincoln, the president of New River Elementary School's student government. "To get together and eat and get around the table and meet with relatives that you haven't seen and you really want to."
New River principal Lynn Pabst wants to create a similar sense of community for her school, now in its second year of operation. The Thanksgiving holiday offered a perfect opportunity on Tuesday, with students line dancing with the principal, making arts projects and, Lincoln's favorite part, decorating cookies to look like turkeys (and, of course, eating them) at the Harvest Hoedown.
The idea started when the school opened a year ago with just 260 children. The kids "were looking to anything to hold onto," Pabst said. "Everything was new. We were pretty small."
This year, enrollment has risen to 465 students, creating even more of a need for school traditions and student interaction.
"For holidays, we do a lot of fun stuff (at school)," said Nick Merilon, 9, who had just finished swinging and swaying to Sweet Home Alabama and was headed to the cookie-icing room. "You get to have fun and you get to participate."
Another good thing, said 10-year-old J.P. Steele, is while they have fun, "we're not doing much work."
Or so they might think.
"It's building their skills and they don't know they're doing it when they're having fun," said media specialist Pam Willoughby, who helped the kids make Thanksgiving bookmarks — they will be reading on the holiday weekend, after all — while reading specialist Donna Shoen had the students sing along to I Know An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Pie.
"Sometimes you need a break from the tough stuff," Willoughby added.
Tayah Meattey, 9, got the message.
"It counts as school work, fun-style," she said between activities.
The younger students got in on the act, too.
One class of kindergarteners and first graders clapped and wiggled and spun around to the Chicken Dance, which some renamed the "Turkey Dance" in honor of the holiday. They chanted "Turkey! Turkey!" as they traveled the school walkways.
Many said they enjoyed the school celebration and they looked forward to spending the days off with their families. The draw?
"The turkey," said Wilberto Santana, 6. "It's tasty, and we get to make cookies, and there's no school."
"It's about how people honor God," added Erica Napuli, also 6.
For Braden Venger, a 6-year-old with chocolate frosting on his cheek and nose, Thanksgiving is important because it's "a special day."
"It's a big feast, and everyone is there," he observed.
Classes resume on Monday.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.