The train rumbled down the track as the snow-covered countryside of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park passed by.

Noses pressed against the cold windows, the kids spied an occasional deer posing as reindeer as this special Polar Express run made its way to the North Pole.

The 118 Akron third-graders clutching their special gold train tickets in their hands were hoping for a glimpse of St. Nick, but for the LeBron James Family Foundation this train ride was the start of a far more important journey.

This is the latest class in the foundation’s effort to help navigate select Akron school kids toward a high school diploma and eventually a college degree.

And these kids will be in the first group to attend the new I Promise School when it opens next year in partnership with Akron Schools to assist at-risk students.

Michele Campbell, executive director of the LeBron James Family Foundation, said the real present for the kids is the nurturing family they are becoming a part of that will help them reach their dreams.

“We are getting them accustomed to this big family,” she said.

Field trips are part of the foundation’s effort to let students experience hands-on learning and career exploration.

Trips by other classes in the foundation include the factory floor at Little Tikes in Hudson and the hangar where they park the Goodyear blimp and even a trip to get a behind-the-scenes tour of Quicken Loans Arena where James plays for the Cavs.

But on Tuesday the highlight of the day was hot chocolate, a cookie and having the Polar Express read to them on the train by one of Santa’s elves.

Thanks to a donation by FirstEnergy Foundation, each child got a copy of the book to take home along with a real bell from Santa’s sleigh.

It was all smiles and cheers as the train rumbled to a stop at the snowy North Pole where elves and even the Grinch were there waiting to greet them.

The children squealed with delight at the sight of two large white dogs, an elf carrying the “good” list and even Santa himself.

And as the train left the Pole for the trip back to Akron, a surprise stowaway walked onto the train wearing a red suit.

Ryam Gurung, a third-grader at Findley Elementary School, told Santa he wanted a video game.

Germani Jones, a kindergartner at Case Elementary, had a pretty big wish.

She told a perplexed Santa that she wanted to ride on his sleigh.

Santa said he’s pretty busy on Christmas Eve and asked what she wanted if she’s already tucked into bed by the time he reaches her home in Akron.

The 6-year-old said she’d like a Barbie camper to park outside of her Barbie Dreamhouse.

“But I really want to ride the sleigh,” she said.

Maleeya Love-Haslam, a third-grader at Schumacher Elementary School, said her Christmas wish is for a Lalaloopsy doll, a pair of boots and a My Little Pony under the Christmas tree.

“That’s my Christmas list,” she said as Santa made his way to other kids on the train car. “Do you think he will give it to me?”

She wanted to make sure Santa was taken care of too.

“I told him ‘Merry Christmas and have a good life.’ ”

Craig Webb, who asked Santa for warm socks and a Browns win, can be reached at or 330-996-3547.