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DeKalb schools expand health education

DeKALB – Holly Maychszak is new to teaching elementary students, but she already has discovered that sometimes actions speak louder than words.

After a few Founders Elementary School students did not show the enthusiasm for running in place that she had hoped for, Maychszak started running herself, and soon the whole classroom looked like an Olympic training center.

While running in place is not a traditional fifth-grade subject, physical activities and lessons on nutrition are becoming commonplace in all DeKalb elementary schools as Northern Illinois University nutrition, nursing and public health students come once a month to teach classes.

“They definitely like it,” said Maychszak, a senior public health major. “I’ve learned you have to get involved with what you’re teaching them, especially with those physical activities.”

DeKalb School District 428’s partnership with NIU is an expansion of the CATCH program, which was tested in some schools and after-school programs last year. CATCH, which stands for Coordinated Approach To Child Health, is aimed at fighting childhood obesity and instilling proper nutrition and exercise habits in young students.

Cristy Meyer, principal of Jefferson Elementary, said the NIU students will come into classrooms six times this year to teach the lessons, which already have excited students and made a change. She said the program would not be possible without Kishwaukee Community Hospital, which has trained the NIU students, and the Kishwaukee Family YMCA, which provides supplemental CATCH activities for district families.

The community approach to raising healthy children is needed in today’s busy society, Meyer said.

“Everybody knows [health] is important, but it’s difficult to make time for the best nutritional choices and exercise,” she said. “We’re bringing it to the forefront when we offer not only these educational pieces but the different activities.”

Lisa Cumings, community liaison with Kishwaukee Hospital and coordinator of the CATCH program, said the goal was always to have CATCH lessons become a part of the yearly curriculum and she hopes to see schools in Sycamore, Genoa and throughout the area adopt the same program.

The addition of community gardens also has helped enrich the learning experience in DeKalb schools thanks to the help of volunteers from the Pioneering Healthier Communities initiative, now known as Live Healthy DeKalb County.

Cumings credited DeKalb teacher Dan Kenney and his group of volunteers for providing areas where elementary students can learn about fresh produce, get excited about new recipes and give back to the community.

“They really went full force,” she said of the volunteers who have bolstered nutrition and exercise education in DeKalb schools. “Now we are ready to set some new goals.”

The expanded program has changed the culture in many schools, Cumings said, noting many teachers choose healthier options in the break rooms and participate in after-school workouts, such as Zumba sessions.

Meyer said NIU would be even more involved next semester with physical education and health students helping with classes.

“It’s all about having happy, healthy children,” she said.

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