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Several Penn Schools Collaborate to Bring a Health Curriculum, Produce Stand, Dental Screenings, and More to a Local Middle School and its Community

It’s the last class of the day at Sayre Middle School, and some of the seventh graders involved in a lesson on drugs led by Penn medical students are showing signs of restlessness. When asked to cite a drawback of marijuana use, one student calls out, “Makes your breath smell like socks!”

Time for Plan B.

“I need two volunteers,” Taral Patel tells the group, and before they know it, two boys have been assigned new identities as “Brain Cell Number One” and “Brain Cell Number Two.” Patel gives them a couple of balls of paper to toss back and forth.

The balls represent the brain’s message-sending neurotransmitters. The boys manage to exchange them efficiently until Patel adds another ball to the mix to show what happens when a person smokes marijuana.

“You just dropped a neurotransmitter!” another instructor shouts.

“Here’s more marijuana,” says Patel, tossing another ball to them.

The students can barely keep up.

“What’s going on?” Patel asks.

“It’s too much,” calls out a student named Elliot. “The brain can’t process it all.”

Between final exams on reproduction and the endocrine system, Patel and two other first-year medical students, Amit Shah and Brendon Nolt, have taken the #21 bus up Walnut Street to Sayre for today’s discussion, one in a series of health talks that have been incorporated into the curriculum of a small learning community within the school.

Their classroom visits are but one part of the latest University-assisted community-school program, coordinated by the Center for Community Partnerships in conjunction with Sayre and several of Penn’s undergraduate, graduate, and professional schools. During the past school year, a dental-school van showed up to provide screenings; nursing students conducted physicals and talked about careers in their field; and medical and masters-degree students in public health worked with parents and children to prepare nutritious meals while highlighting diseases such as diabetes and hypertension. Last fall, fine-arts students helped Sayre kids construct a clay mural for their school on what good health means to them. Gradually, health-promotion and disease-prevention initiatives are being implemented in the curriculum and the school is being transformed into a health clinic for the entire community.

“There are some substantial health needs in West Philadelphia, and the best way to get information across is really through the kids, because they’re more likely to turn around and [repeat it] to other kids and their parents,” says Alyssa Lord, who works for CCP as Sayre Beacon Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Coordinator. Lord points out that the topics covered in the classes led by Penn undergraduates and medical students are relevant to their daily lives. “They all know somebody who smokes cigarettes. They all know somebody who has high blood pressure—and asthma; asthma is so prevalent here.”

In a classroom down the hall from the medical students, Dana Prince, another Sayre Beacon coordinator for CCP, conducts a lesson around the fruit-and-vegetable stand that students run after school three days a week.

“There’s a lack of fresh fruits and vegetables, and a lot of the kids don’t have the most healthy eating behaviors,” Prince explained earlier. “After school they’ll go grab a bag of chips and a soda at the corner store. We’re trying to introduce an alternative to that.”

Sharon Askia-Smith, the full-time classroom teacher, sits quietly during Prince’s lesson, but says, “I enjoy it because they’re excited about it. One thing I believe is that as students realize the importance of healthy eating, then they will start to incorporate it into their lives. They [already] may have had classes on health that teach the ‘food pyramid,’ Smith adds, “but to actually bring the fruit in to them so they can understand what and why, that’s invaluable.”

Patel says he got involved with the program at Sayre because, “I thought it would be a lot of fun. It’s teaching, it’s working with kids. And we just have a good time. We’re not like teachers to them. We’re more like friends. They’re a lot more grown up than we were at their age,” he adds. “They’ve asked very intelligent questions. They really want good information and we’re happy to kind of set the record straight with them.”

The students, in turn, look forward to their visits. “They’re fun because they teach us about stuff we don’t know,” says Elliot, one of the seventh-graders.

“I listen to them,” says a classmate named Dionne. “I know last week they were talking to us about alcohol—beer, liquor, and stuff. Today they’re talking to us about marijuana and what it can do to affect your mind. They’re telling us how it can cause diseases and make you go crazy and stuff and what you can do to people when you’re affected [by it]. It really upsets you.”

When the bell rings to signal the end of the school day, Prince emerges from her classroom, looking relieved that her lesson worked out. “That was fun. I’m in a better mood.” After a brief math exercise based on fictitious produce sales, she passed out mango slices for the sixth-graders to try. They were a hit, unlike the dried apples they sampled the previous week. “I want to do a whole bean lesson,” Prince muses. “Vegetables are harder.”

Beyond healthy eating habits, the fruit-and-vegetable stand yields many potential lessons, from entrepreneurship to supply and demand, Prince says. “We can even bring in some culture and history to it, asking questions like, ‘Why are there more health problems related to poor nutrition in my community?’ Let’s talk about race, let’s talk about class, let’s talk about access.”

Mei Elansary C’04, who has taken a lead role in developing the health program at Sayre, calls it a great collaboration. “I think the community and the school and the teachers have been extremely receptive to us working with their kids.”

The program is still in its growing stages. In fact, Principal Joseph Starinieri notes that Sayre was just notified that it is going to gradually become a high school, so this might change the pace at which health lessons are integrated into parts of the curriculum. But Sayre has been asking for just such a program for several years, so he’s happy to finally have something in place.

Elansary is pleased to see students already getting excited about math and science and “taking ownership” of their health. At the fruit-and-vegetable stand, she notes, there was one boy who would always buy fruit for himself and some to take home to his little brother. “He told me, ‘I want my little brother to eat healthy as well.’”

There are other signs that the right messages are sinking in with at least some of the students. According to Elansary, “Four boys told me they were trying to stop smoking, and three girls came up to me and said, ‘We really want to go to your school when we grow up. Will you teach us what we have to do?’

“If they believe in what they can do and that they can go to Penn, then obviously they’re going to take care of themselves.”

Susan Frith

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2003 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 04/28/03