Inspired by a beloved holiday movie, Dr. LaTanya Williams-Collins, principal at Martin L. King, Jr. Elementary, kicked off the holiday season by providing every student in her school with a Christmas present Thursday afternoon.

Collins became principal at MLK Elementary three years ago and noticed attendance, especially during the month of December, was one of the challenges the school faced. She and her team created "December to Remember," an initiative centered around improving chronic absences.

"In December to Remember, we had themed weeks where students would be able to dress up for different types of things," Collins said. "The last week of school is when we do our 'Polar Express' week and in the story of the Polar Express, they had a lot of gift-giving and sing-along."

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Collins said they started the "Polar Express Day' which is always the Thursday before school closes for Christmas break, where the school day includes a Christmas program, songs from the staff and the showing of the film of the same name.

Following the showing, the student body recreates a scene from the movie where students are presented with a Christmas present. Staff "elves" lined the corners of the school with Christmas trees filled with gifts and students from every grade level are allowed to come out of class and receive gifts, ranging from Barbie dolls, Lego play sets and bikes for a small number of students with extreme need.

"We take the scene out of the story where every child gets a gift," Collins said. "We pull this off by having a lot of community support. We have different organizations and churches that come in and pour into the school."

Collins said the program allows all students, regardless of their background, to receive an item for Christmas. She said this is important to make every child feel special.

"I don't want them to feel like they are different," Collins said. "Some do have more than others, but that doesn't matter to us because we have a theme that 'you matter' and when we say that, we are referring to all of our students."

(Brittany Marshall|Tuscaloosa Thread)
(Brittany Marshall|Tuscaloosa Thread)

Collins said this is one of the ways the school celebrates their students that has evolved into a yearly holiday tradition.

"It started off as a way to try to get them here and make sure that December is a month that we are going to remember," Collins said. "It's not going to be a month where we are dreading because attendance is low. We want our kids to feel like they can keep going and have something to look forward to during the month of December. The learning is still taking place, but this is an added addition."

Collins said the joy of this program is seeing her students smile when they receive gifts, which she said is one of the true meanings of Christmas.

"Just to see all of them getting along together, to see that cheer is a magical moment when you see their eyes brighten when they come out of class. When they come out and see everything that's under these trees, it is awesome. It just gives you a lot of joy to see that."

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