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Making the Grade in Health

Shira Isenberg

A revolution is taking place at Bnos Bais Yaakov in Far Rockaway. Students are snacking on fruits and vegetables, racing to gym class, and begging for more after-school exercise activities. What inspired the changes, why they’re actually working, and how to help your school follow their lead.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

boy with big orangeBnos Bais Yaakov, or BBY as it’s known in the Far Rockaway–Five Towns community, looms large on Beach 9th Street, a striking brick building with a lively playground. Home to over 900 students, Bnos Bais Yaakov is likely not the first frum school to implement health-oriented policies. But what makes it stand out is that its strategy is actually working.


Two Stuffed Swans

Several years ago, BBY began instituting healthy changes at the youngest level, in its Sherry Garber Preschool. The rationale: since changing behaviors is difficult, it’s better to learn good habits at an early age. Teachers are firm about the healthy snack policy — morning snack must consist of foods whose brachos are either ha’eitz or ha’adamah — while afternoons are restricted to a low-sugar snack such as pretzels or crackers. If a mother sends in an unhealthy snack, the child receives a healthy snack option that is available at the preschool while the uneaten snack is returned home, along with a gently worded reminder note.

Every month, the 230-plus preschoolers learn about a new healthy habit, be it “Sensational Sleep,” “Metzuyan Mayim,” or “Noshing on Nutrients.” The preschool director, Yehudis Oppen, introduces the healthy habit with her assistants, two stuffed swans — the wise Savta Swan and her beloved granddaughter, Shoshie Swan. In each skit, Shoshie acts out an unhealthy behavior in a silly way and Savta lovingly corrects her, teaching her the appropriate, healthier way. Mrs. Oppen gets into full character, too — she even donned a bathrobe and big duck slippers when discussing good sleep habits.

Afterwards, there’s a skit or song, given by a different preschool class each month in full costume, about healthy habits. The songs are usually catchy — and contagious — with girls later singing them down the halls. On occasion, the assembly will include a surprise speaker. For instance, a mother who is also a professional cook showed the children how to make healthy strawberry-based drinks.

The BBY strategy works because it’s comprehensive; it’s not just a nice idea with no follow-up. For instance, to promote the performance of the healthy habit throughout the month and beyond, students receive little gifts — plastic sunglasses to remind the students about sun safety, small boxes of whole-grain cereals to encourage eating breakfast, a health- and safety-themed coloring book. The kids also take home the Healthy Habits newsletter for their parents, who are pivotal to the program’s success.

“We stress to the children that Hashem gave you one body, and it’s a big mitzvah to take care of it in so many ways,” adds Mrs. Oppen, who regularly visits the preschool classrooms with books about the topic of the month.

For first through fourth grades, the school year started a new “Snack on Track” program last September. This adapted program encourages healthy snacks — with a bracha of ha’eitz or ha’adamah, as well as low-fat snacks like popcorn — during morning recess to raise the students’ awareness and intake of nutritious foods.

Unlike the preschool program, however, participation is not required. But although students may bring any snacks they like, there are incentives to make healthier food choices. Each student who brings a snack that meets the program parameters receives a specially designed ticket in the weekly raffle for prizes. Furthermore, an entire class that brings healthy snacks for at least three days earns extra recess time once a week.

The raffles are a big draw, according to PTA president Shira Mendlowitz. “With children older than preschool, getting them to choose healthy snacks is a bigger challenge. They have their own opinions. They’ll tell you outright, ‘I want Super Snacks.’ Now, with the added incentive of the raffle, the girls are begging for healthy snacks so they’ll receive a ticket.”

In fact, the program was so successful that it was broadened to grades five through eight midway through the school year. “The girls themselves asked for it!” says Mrs. Yitty Halpert, limudei kodesh principal for fifth through eighth grade.

At BBY, the entire staff is behind the program. “We’re trying to empower the girls with information, as well as the drive, to make healthy decisions for their lives,” says Mrs. Penina Neuberg, the limudei kodesh principal for grades one through four. She and her counterpart, Mrs. Devorah Kurland, who is the general studies principal, work together to implement the program and encourage the children.

Another key is positive peer pressure. “The girls really wanted that extra recess,” Mrs. Neuberg relates, “so they would cajole their nonparticipating classmates, ‘Please bring in a healthy snack.’ That also helped build a team spirit.” What the students perhaps didn’t realize is that extra recess also means more time running around and being active.


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