The Songhai Learning Institute, home to 335 students from Chicago's West Pullman and Roseland communities, boasts historic architecture, wide corridors, and high ceilings. Principal Sherry Pirtle capitalized on this ambiance by creating a Winter Wonderland within the school, providing students and their families with a festive holiday experience.
"A lot of our kids go through really hard times," said Pirtle, "so we want to create happy moments, especially around the holidays."
On the afternoon of December 13, Songhai's long first-floor hallway was lined with two dozen 6-foot tables draped in varying shades of blue and white. "These are our school colors," said Pirtle. "They created a perfect Winter Wonderland theme."
The event was widely anticipated throughout the community, with nearly 400 people in attendance for the traditional holiday feast. Simply sitting down together was among Ms. Pirtle's highest priorities for the project. "It's something that we're often missing in our community," she said, "the act of sitting down together for a meal."
Dinner was made extra special by the entertainment—music provided by several of Songhai's talented students, who study brass, percussion and chorus twice a week thanks to a partnership with the Salvation Army. "We wanted to make our guests feel like they were eating at the Walnut Room," said Pirtle, "and I think we succeeded."
But Christmas spirit was flowing even before the meal, as students in pre-K through 8th grade performed holiday classics from Motown artists such as The Supremes and The Jackson 5. This performance, attended by over 400 of the children's parents and peers, was immediately followed by Songhai's Holiday Halls feast. After dinner, all students were given a new book to add to their at-home libraries – a gift courtesy of Reading Is Fundamental (RIF), a nonprofit that works to motivate students to make reading a fun and beneficial part of everyday life. RIF is the largest children's literacy nonprofit in the U.S., and its highest priority is to reach underserved populations from birth to age 8.
"Our children receive brand new books from RIF twice a year," said Principal Sherry Pirtle. "It goes a long way toward helping them love to read."
Students in Pre-K through 6th grade also received wrapped Christmas gifts compliments of the Chicago Sun-Times Season of Sharing Program and Our Lady of the Woods Parish in Orland Park.
"Several organizations adopted us, and my office was literally overflowing with gifts," said Pirtle. "Thanks to that generosity, we were able to send our students home with full bellies and a Christmas gift."