Because they've done so well in class and exhibited good behavior and attendance, 100 students from pre-kindergarten to fifth grade were called to the library at Juniata Park Academy School yesterday afternoon for a different kind of lesson.
Waiting for them were not only brightly wrapped Christmas gifts and cash, but also decisions.
The decisions were designed to teach Principal Pat Mazzuca's students about sharing, rather than just receiving, during this give-and-take holiday season.
The idea came not from Santa but from recently retired Philadelphia Police Chief Inspector Jose M. Melendez, who got help from a dozen or so city police officers to pull off his 13th annual "Spirit of Giving" Christmas program.
The program moves to a different school each year, but the goal remains the same, said Melendez, who spent 40 years with the department.
"It's about sharing with others and a time to reflect on the blessings that we have received and how much luckier we are than others," he said. "There are a whole lot of other people who have needs greater than ours, so we try to get the kids to reflect on that."
Thus, 50 Juniata Park Academy students were placed in the "giver" group and 50 were placed in the "receiver" group.
Each giver was given $15 and a Hess Holiday Toy Truck with headlights that flash - retail value of about $25.
Then a parade of students in pairs faced off, an officer asking each giver which gift they wanted to give to their receiver and which they wanted to keep.
Johnny decided to keep the money to buy his mom a present, giving the toy to William. Sandra kept the truck and gave the money to Christine. Raul kept the money to share with his brother, and gave Charles the toy. Kenny kept the truck and gave the money to Mary, who said that she would donate the funds to the poor.
And so it went, until all the trucks and all the bills were gone.
Principal Mazzuca, who has been with the School District of Philadelphia for 28 years, beamed throughout the program, as she ushered the youngsters toward the officers to receive the gifts.
At her school of 955 youngsters, 808 qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.
But as her students filed out of the library clutching the trucks and money, Mazzuca radiated pride in just having witnessed their acts of selflessness.
"I think it went wonderful," she said. "We want the kids to get that sense of giving and of sharing and of responsibility at a very young age. I believe in investing in our little people."
The Hess Corp. donated the trucks, and the Kahn Family Foundation provided the monetary gifts. *