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The City Journals

Education top priority for Lincoln Elementary principal

Dec 01, 2017 10:38AM ● By Jana Klopsch

Principal Milton Collins discusses future assemblies to recognize outstanding students with secretary Milena Pehar (sitting) and Cynthia Witt.

By Doree Anderson

Milton Collins radiates enthusiasm. You can feel the excitement in his voice as he begins his morning announcements as principal at Lincoln Elementary with “Good morning bobcat grrrrrrowl,” and laughs when the students growl back.

Collins was born and raised in Charleston, Mississippi, a small northern town about an hour south of Memphis that’s also the hometown of Morgan Freeman. 

As a child from a poor family, he’s always been a student in Title 1 schools. 

“I’d only met my father twice. The first time, I was six. When I was seven, my mom said, ‘Hey, your dad passed, and you’ve got to go to the funeral.’ I remember like it was yesterday, I sat on the front row staring at his casket,” Collins recalled.

His mother and three aunts raised him and his brother with love, guidance and respect. “And education. She always hammered that in. You’ve got to get an education. You’ve got to do good in school. Son, you’ve got to do better than me,” Collins said. His mother, to this day, still has not obtained her GED. She came from a large family and dropped out of school in the eighth grade to work.

Collins played basketball in high school but never thought it would lead to anything. Until a coach from Rust College (Holly Springs, Mississippi) happened to be refereeing for a game his high school was playing. A few days later, the coach stopped by the house to speak with his mother. Milton explained to his mother that the coach had offered him a full scholarship to play basketball at Rust College’s expense.

His mother was elated. When Collins mentioned that he wanted to wait and see what other schools had to offer, his mother would not hear of it. 

“She said, ‘No, you’re not! That man said he’d be paying for everything. You’d best be signing your name on that dotted line.’ So, I did,” Collins said.

After his freshman year, the coach called him in for a chat. He asked what plans Collins had for after graduation. Surprised at the question, he said he planned to join the league—NBA all the way. The coach said something that changed Collins’ direction. He said that Collins wasn’t good enough, tall enough or fast enough. 

But Collins was good at something, because his coach then asked him to help teach during a summer program. The National Youth Sports Program allows Title 1 kids to spend time on the college campus and learn about and play all types of sports.

At the end of the program, Collins’ coach approached him and told him that he noticed Collins had a gift for teaching and that students loved the way he taught them.

He graduated with a degree in education and his teaching journey began. 

Collin’s first job led him to Lorenzo Smith School in rural Hopkins Park, Illinois while living in Kankakee. He taught 3rd grade and coached basketball and track and married his college sweetheart. 

From Illinois, he continued teaching and went back to school to earn a master’s in administration. He then progressed from teacher to assistant principal to principal. The death of his father-in-law moved the family to Coolidge, Arizona 

“In Coolidge, the town shuts down for the football games. I started out as the assistant principal to the principal of the high school and still remember the mayor. We moved to Coolidge, then Chandler. When my ex-wife left Arizona, my daughters finished college at Rust, my son and I moved to Chandler and I began working at Dos Rios Elementary,” Collins said. 

He moved to Salt Lake City following a mentor from Dos Rios Elementary and found his new home at Lincoln Elementary. He’s making Utah his last stop and plans to retire in Mississippi, where he may do some motivational speaking.

“These kinder kids are wonderful. They’re so full of hugs and smiles,” Collins said. “Working with me you must love kids. Before getting into a student’s head, you’ve got to get into their heart. Listen. I’m still in touch with a student, Chester Perry, third grade. I’ll never forget him. He’d come to school wearing his little sweater, and telling me he wants to be like me and I’d say, nope, you’ve got to be better than me. He’s an electrical engineer now, making six figures. I ask if he still wants to be like me and he laughs.”