Marquette University and the United Community Center’s Bruce-Guadalupe Community School, 1028 S. 9th St., are using a new $1.5 million federal grant to improve their health and wellness programming for middle school students.
The partnership and the program have evolved since beginning in 2006, and now serve approximately 30-50 students per grade level at the school.
“We’ve taken what we’ve learned [each year] to come up with some creative, innovative programming,” said Marquette’s Dr. Paula Papanek, one of the project’s principal investigators.
Under the new grant, the afterschool program, which combines mentorship with physical fitness activities, will undergo several changes. The organizations hired a family advocate to increase parental involvement; added a social worker to address issues not covered in the afterschool program; and began working with younger students—incoming 5th-graders—to increase the number of years that students can participate.
“We were able to hire a family advocate to call [parents] on the phone,” said Dr. Lawrence Pan, the other principal investigator on the project.
The family advocate, whose two sons have participated in the program and whose daughter is participating this year, will help explain the benefits to parents, aiming to get them interested in health and wellness education. She will also bring data such as students’ attendance and test score results directly to parents’ homes.
School administrators, staff and social workers work to identify students who may be at risk for health problems, and then families apply to participate. Papanek hopes increased family involvement will help raise standards for academic achievement, school attendance and fitness within at-risk communities. “Working through their kids, we can break the cycle (of poor health),” she said.
Ashley Anderson, who is completing her fifth year of Marquette’s six-year doctor of physical therapy program, worked with Bruce-Guadalupe students last year. Anderson emphasized that innovation in the program is essential to earning students’ enthusiasm and commitment.
“Especially with middle school girls—you know, they don’t want to mess up their hair—we had to be creative and work with them,” said Anderson. Some of the fitness activities that work best are obstacle courses, sprints, and plyometricsssss—jumping exercises that involve fast, explosive movements—according to Anderson.
Students meet every day after school for two hours, with one hour of academic support and mentoring, and one hour of fitness activities. Students also participate in field trips as well as extracurricular clubs, such as Science Club, run by Bruce-Guadalupe staff members. Field trips have included visits to Devil’s Lake and the Urban Ecology Center,
All of this contributes to a shift in students’ attitudes. “They came around to it once they saw the difference, as far as feeling better when doing the exercises,” said Anderson.
Tim Balke, UCC’s pre-college advisor and prevention specialist, agreed that the school culture at Bruce-Guadalupe has changed since the program began. “At first there was some stigma,” said Balke, because program participants are separated from other students at various times. “But, as other students saw the results, that changed.”
Now, according to Balke, students volunteer for the program even after it has reached capacity. Also, because some former program participants are now in high school, older students are being asked to come back as mentors for younger students.
“Now the 5th graders can see [the high school students] were literally in the same seats they’re in now,” said Balke. Most importantly, he said middle school is a pivotal time for students to have an outlet for support beyond parents and teachers, which the health and wellness programming provides.
“That light pops on in their heads (in) that window of 5th, 6th, and 7th grade when they’re believing in themselves,” Balke added.