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GUY RAZ, HOST:

The students who survived the attack at Sandy Hook Elementary will not be returning to their school in Newtown, Connecticut, where 20 first graders and six educators were shot to death last Friday. Instead, when classes resume after the holidays, they'll attend a school in the neighboring town of Monroe.

And as NPR's David Schaper reports, both towns are working to make the new school as similar as possible to the one Sandy Hook students left behind.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Walk into the old building behind the Monroe Congregational Church, and it's hard not to be struck by what's there.

CYNTHIA ROBINSON: Twelve feet by 36 feet of stuffed animals.

SCHAPER: There are at least 300 of them, says church member and volunteer Cynthia Robinson.

ROBINSON: There are monkeys, there are zebras, there are hippos and lambs and unicorns.

SCHAPER: Robinson says the idea for a stuffed animal drop-off came from a desire to lend aid and comfort to the town of Monroe's neighbors in Newtown, just six miles away. The hope is to have the cuddlies waiting for Sandy Hook students when they come to their new school here in Monroe.

ROBINSON: That would be the ideal thing, would be to have one on every desk when they come into school that first day.

SCHAPER: Those desks are the very same ones the students had in Sandy Hook before the shooting, moved to a school that Monroe closed two years ago because of declining enrollment.

STEVE VAVREK: The only word I can use is a miracle.

SCHAPER: Monroe first selectman Steve Vavrek says a deal was done and the building prepared for Sandy Hook's small students surprisingly fast.

VAVREK: It went from a middle school, basically it is now an elementary school.

SCHAPER: Vavrek says movers, plumbers, carpenters, electricians and painters, many of them volunteers, have been working around the clock to bring the building up to code and turn it into a near replica of the Sandy Hook school.

VAVREK: Every class is pretty much meticulously rendered to look exactly like when the kids left it, right down to the water bottles on the desk - everything that that child left. And remember, they left without their coats, their backpacks, their water bottles, anything.

SCHAPER: Vavrek says this school's walls are now painted the colors of Sandy Hook's. And all of the same posters, artwork and smart boards, even cubbyholes from Sandy Hook, are going into these classrooms.

VAVREK: Right down to the sign that they're going to see outside is their sign. I guess for their sake, they've been through enough. A couple of kids are apprehensive, but as soon as they walk around the school, the first thing they say is, wow, our gym is bigger. And, wow, our cafeteria's now bigger. And now it's our - they're already saying our. That shows resilience of kids because it's already - they know it's already theirs.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

KAREN DRYER: (Unintelligible) is very excited.

SCHAPER: In the Sandy Hook home of Karen Dryer, the greeting of golden retriever Eli is comforting to a family still reeling from the tragedy. Dryer has a son who is a Sandy Hook kindergartner. She's also an educator who's been helping prepare the classrooms in the Monroe school, and Dryer says a return to normalcy is vital for children.

DRYER: They thrive on schedules, and they like structure. It's very important, and especially the young children - when you're talking kindergarten through third or fourth grade - they really need to feel safe.

SCHAPER: For Dryer, the best news is that a familiar face will lead the new school: retired Sandy Hook principal Donna Page is coming back to replace Dawn Hochsprung, the principal who was killed. But Dryer worries about the school in Monroe being at least a 15-minute drive away from Sandy Hook.

DRYER: I felt comfortable that the school was right down the road from me and I could be there in an instant, like I was on Friday. This school's a distance, so it's like we can't be there in five minutes. We can't, you know, so that's a little scary.

SCHAPER: Monroe first selectman Steve Vavrek and his police department promise tight security, saying this may be the safest school in the country when Sandy Hook students arrive there in the first days of January. David Schaper, NPR News, Danbury, Connecticut.

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