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Excited school children fly to Santa and sea turtles

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

For once, the "reindeer" got to ride in Santa Claus' "sleigh," instead of pulling it.

Atlantic Southeast Airlines (ASA) flew 30 students from the Forest Park-based Hendrix Drive Elementary School on Wednesday to Brunswick, Ga., aboard "Santa's Special Sleigh."

It was all a part of a one-day field trip to the Georgia Sea Turtle Center on nearby Jekyll Island. The students were being rewarded for having the highest scores on the accelerated reader tests this fall.

During the trip, they also got to meet Santa Claus.

As they prepared to board the plane, which had been turned into Santa's sleigh, the youths were given a set of reindeer antlers to wear during the flight.

On board, streamers and garland, with colorful lightbulb-shaped pieces of paper, hung from the luggage compartments. Large, plush candy canes were hung on the walls and doors throughout the plane. Temporary snowman stickers had been applied to every other passenger window.

"The best part about this is just to see the kids' faces light up when they get on the plane," said Cynthia Milner, one of the organizers for "Santa's Special Sleigh," and a rewards-and-recognition manager for ASA. "For a lot of them, this will be their first time getting to fly on an airplane."

The "Santa's Special Sleigh" trip is a reward ASA provides, in partnership with Hendrix Drive Elementary School, for the school's Accelerated Reader program. The program encourages students to read books that are above their grade level. The students take computerized tests, which measure their comprehension of the books they read. Those with the highest scores get to ride "Santa's Special Sleigh."

But, there were only two things the students cared about on Wednesday morning, as they prepared for take-off -- flying and turtles.

"This is my first time flying, and I've got a window seat, so I'm a little nervous that I'll [be sick] on the window," said Victoria Bazemore, 10, a fifth-grader. "At the same time, I'm excited because I've never flown before. It's sort of a nervous excitement."

Candiddo Espina-Bustillo, 7, a second-grader at Hendrix Drive, was also a first-time flyer, and he said he wants to be a pilot some day. But what really got him fired up was the idea of seeing the sea turtles. "I think they are the best kind of turtles, because they can swim," he said.

However, Symirna Jean-Simon, Hendrix Drive's school counselor, reiterated that the trip was about education, and letting the students feel some sense of accomplishment. "The best part about this for the school is that ASA is giving us an opportunity to reward the students for working hard," said Jean-Simon. "This lets them [the students] see something they achieved."

Lisa Walker, ASA's vice president of operational support, said the trip was equally rewarding for the airline. "Reading is the key to learning," she said. "It is important to encourage children to do well in reading, because it helps them as they progress in their education."