Creating a New Generation of WITS Leadership

An Interview with Rachel Alkon, Associates Council Co-President

By: Melissa Neubart

January 2019

Where did you grow up?

Manhasset, Long Island

Where do you live now?

Upper West Side

What do you do for work?

I’m the Director of Public Affairs & Policy at Whole Foods Market

What’s your favorite part about your job?

That I spend every day on the issues I care about the most: the food system and the environment. It’s rewarding to focus on your quirky passions, like sustainable packaging and ingredient transparency, and have in-depth conversations with such knowledgeable colleagues who share these interests.

How (and when) did you hear about Wellness in the Schools?

More than a decade ago, my great aunt Marilyn Katz, a talented writer and academic, then in her late 70s, was one of WITS’ original volunteers. Through a program called Gray Matters, Marilyn advised WITS on communications, in the very early days. Years later, while studying Food Policy at New York University, I had the opportunity to join WITS, and build on Marilyn’s work.

What interested you about getting involved with Wellness in the Schools?

Kids spend thousands of hours in school and learn many of their lifelong behaviors from teachers, principals, and peers. We cannot always control what happens at home, but WITS is paving the way for better lifelong outcomes, by bringing kids real food, physical activity, and critical nutrition education. WITS is making schools healthier and happier environments. I can’t think of a better way to drive real long-term change.

Can you share a memory of Wellness in the Schools?

There are too many to count, but the absolute highlight was participating in a WITS Apple Lab with elementary school kids in the Bronx. WITS Chef Ricardo’s ability to teach nutrition to kids who were maybe 8 or 9 is remarkable. The kids soaked up his every word – they learned valuable knife-skills, grew to adore applesauce, and developed an appreciation for fresh food.

We’re lucky to have you as the President of WITS’ young professional group, which we call the Associates Council (AC). Can you share a bit about the development of the AC? How (and why) was it developed?

While at WITS, we often discussed expanding the WITS network to the next generation of leaders and soon-to-be parents. We soon discovered the WITS mission has great appeal to all generations. Over the past year, we’ve cultivated a group of more than 25 professionals, mostly in their 20 and 30s, interested in children’s health. By taking on pro-bono volunteer projects, from fundraising strategy and event management to PR and marketing support, the group is generously lending their professional skills to help WITS grow.

What makes you excited to be a part of the AC?

In partnership with my Co-President, Sydney Werber, we’ve created a new type of WITS volunteer experience – rather than just volunteering for an event, the Council is tackling some of WITS’ biggest strategic challenges and priorities, in partnership with WITS leadership and staff who are experts on the program, and is addressing the complex dynamics of working in schools. It’s an amazing learning opportunity, both for WITS and the Council Members.

Any interesting events the AC organized?

Bill Telepan led an intimate seafood-focused cooking class at ICE, exclusively for Council members. We walked away with new culinary skills, new friends, and of course, full stomachs. We’re planning more events like this for 2019.

If you’re interested in getting involved in the WITS Associates Council, please reach out! You can send Melissa Neubart, Director of Development + Partnerships, an email at

What Would Pearl Do?

Reflections on 2018

By: Nancy Easton

January 2019

For an organization that functions primarily on a school year schedule, a new calendar year is really just a midway point for us. The first half of this school year has been marked by something we have always done quite well – collaborate. Since we began, we have been a close partner to the NYC Dept of Education Office of School Food. While that collaboration continues to be our most robust, this year I also want to give mention to the many organizations with whom we work together to bring about healthy change, for kids in schools here in NYC. I just returned from a City Council hearing to advocate for bills to improve food and nutrition in NYC public schools. I was truly emotional standing on the steps of City Hall, knowing that we have come so far from the early days of doing this work alone. Thanks to The Tisch Center for Food Education and Policy, we now have an amazing coalition of food and nutrition advocates (nearly 100 of us!) who are already proving the value of “united we stand . . .”. Next month I will meet up with new partners from Life Time Foundation, and old friends from Whole Kids Foundation, to begin our preparations for the School Food Innovation Lab – a national example of collaboration in the quest for school lunch reform.

When pressed to write about the year that was 2018, I could only think about what a hard year it was for me personally, marked by the loss of my beloved mother-in-law, Pearl Nipon, at age 90. It’s hard to comment on 2018 without giving a tribute to her, and how she influenced me as a woman entrepreneur. The Philadelphia Inquirer does a wonderful job of capturing her influence. Pearl paved the way for so many, simply by working hard and never accepting “no.” While she was small in stature, she was gigantic in spirit and positivity – a spirit and energy that certainly fueled me. She believed she could do absolutely anything. And she did. Pearl started her first business at 18; she fired her most important supplier for making advances at her sister long before #metoo; she fought (and beat) breast cancer; she raised four children together with her husband (and my father-in-law) Albert; she exercised every day and did all of this with the most incredible grace and style. I used to “shop” in Pearl’s closet when I was looking for the perfect outfit for an important event or meeting. She was quick to give her opinion of what looked just right, and what didn’t. And, mostly, she reminded me that I could be both feminine and bold – just like her, and the clothing she designed.

We lost a family matriarch in 2018, yet her influence will live on in the many women (not only family) whom she inspired. As the head of Wellness in the Schools, I will continue to evoke my inner Pearl when I get yet another “no” or another setback in our effort to end childhood obesity –  like the most recent episode of flaunting fast food in the White House, or the rolling back of nutrition standards. This work is not easy, but nothing worthwhile ever is, and Pearl would never, ever back down.

National Food Trend Expert Elly Truesdell joins WITS Advisory Board

By: Joan Chung

Elly Truesdell may have just recently joined the WITS Advisory Board, but she has played a role in Wellness in the Schools’ story since 2009. WITS had just begun a partnership with Whole Foods Market (WFM) that year, and she vividly remembers unloading cases of tomatoes and potatoes for WITS Labs at the WFM Bowery location. “I feel like I saw the program when it was in its beginning stages, and it has been absolutely amazing seeing it grow,” says Elly.

Today, Elly is the Chief Strategy Officer at Canopy Foods, a food production studio that offers support in both brand strategy and manufacturing. Elly’s journey within the food space is a remarkable one. After she graduated from college, she knew she wanted to do something in food but was not quite sure what that would look like. While her friends all had serious jobs in investment banking and consulting, she found a role in a restaurant group that led a variety of interesting concepts, such as a specialty produce store and a demonstration kitchen. Within this position, she saw many different sides of the food industry, such as an “event” side and a “high-end restaurant” side. She also built relationships with the farmers who provided the produce. This prompted her to work a short stint on a farm, and experience first-hand how food went from soil to plate. She realized the restaurant industry was not really for her, and that she wanted to work for a mission-driven company that was connected to agricultural sustainability and good sourcing in some way.

For Elly, Whole Foods Market was the gold standard. She worked at a store in the marketing department and worked her way up, meeting Nancy along the way. “Nancy had submitted an application for sponsorship or donations, and I was overseeing those for the Northeast region at the time. We met to review the ask, and our relationship blossomed from there,” says Elly.

As she continued working for WFM, she knew that there was a ‘local forager’ position available for the Northeast region. After learning about the role, she made it her mission to make that her job.  After one year of dedicated preparation to make herself a good candidate, she officially started in 2012 as the local forager. Through the position, she was responsible for finding and supporting local providers of products. She found herself on oyster boats, visiting dairy farms, and talking to ice cream manufacturers to see which goods should and could enter the large retail environment that is WFM – a dream job. Thanks to Elly, beloved products such as Purely Elizabeth granola and Stumptown Coffee can be found on the WFM shelves today.

Echoing the spirit of WITS, Elly says that her favorite thing about the position was building relationships with people. “I played this intermediary role between product and Whole Foods, and helped bridge the two,” she says. Of course, this was not an easy task, mostly due to the overwhelming amount of product that exists in this competitive space. “It’s a bit disheartening because there are a lot of opportunists, but we really needed to feel like the business was offering an exceptional product. It had to reach this high level of quality and ingredient compilation, offer something new and meet consumers in a new way.”

After nine years at WFM, Elly found herself facing one consistent and glaring challenge – smaller growing producers were finding it difficult to find a co-packer or third party manufacturer that was going to preserve the product’s integrity, while helping the business tremendously scale. She joined Canopy Foods this past January as Chief Strategy Officer to help address this issue. While Canopy Foods is her full time role, she also spends 25% of her time as Portfolio Manager of Almanac Insights, an investment fund started by David Barber that extends the values of regenerative agriculture into venture capital.

As someone who was connected to WITS so early on, Elly is excited to now be a part of our Advisory Board. “I was able to contribute in this small way in the beginning, and I’m excited to now be a part of the Advisory Board after having built this skill set along the way. I’m looking forward to spending more time in schools, volunteering and doing some of the work side-by-side to really see the programming in action. I’ve heard so much about WITS and have seen certain elements, but I now have an opportunity to get much more involved.”

While the concept of getting more fruits and vegetables into a child’s diet is simple, Elly knows that it is a greater challenge than it appears. However, she believes that the WITS approach of teaching hands-on Labs and exposing children to new menu items is a thoughtful, unique model that will have a lasting impact. “When I think about the future of school lunch, I see more colors and more food in their whole form, and I think about it being a more interactive experience. I want children to actually get to play a role in making the food in some way. Cooking and working with food yourself ultimately plays a huge role when it comes to understanding health and nutrition, and WITS knows how to present it in a smart, playful, and clever way.”

The years Elly spent at Whole Foods Market imparted a deep awareness on the importance of health and nutrition. Says Elly, “It completely changed my life and really shifted the way I live. More importantly, it contributed to the way I think about children, and the way I think about families. WITS makes an impact not just on the individual child, but on the whole family, and I’ve always been inspired by Nancy and the work we do for that reason.”

Thank you, Elly! WITS is so excited to have you join our Advisory Board.   

Featured Fall Fitness Move: “Turkish Get-Up” by Fitness Partner Equinox Highline

At Equinox Highline, one of our favorite fitness moves are ground to standing exercises (example above!)

Ground to standing movements are big indicators of overall health for people of all ages. It represents fundamental movement patterns and progressive strength that we developed as babies to get us off of the ground. A ground to standing exercise can improve cardiovascular fitness as well as movement quality and strength capacity when loaded.

As a body goes from a lying position to a standing position the heart has to compensate for various level and pressure changes causing it to work more. In addition, proper joint synchronization and muscular engagement is needed to overcome any imbalance and possibility of falling down.

The apex of ground to standing exercises is the Turkish Get-Up which is a formalized set of movements done under load. Even simply gauging your progress on how easy or difficult it is for you to stand can indicate how healthy you are. Ultimately it’s the practice of going back to the fundamentals on learning how to stand up for ourselves.

Turkish Get-Up:

  1. Grip your weight and move your arm so it is perpendicular to the floor.
  2. Place the opposite arm on the floor approximately 45 degrees from the body, and bend the knee on the side of the body that’s holding the kettlebell.
  3. Roll up onto the elbow, and then roll onto your hand slowly.
  4. Lift the hips, take the straight leg and sweep it under your body.
  5. Take the supporting hand off the floor, and get your legs in a lunge position. Stand up from the lunge!

What WITS Makes, Trenton Takes

By: Marion Williams, NJ Director + Melissa Neubart, Development Director

Driving into Trenton, New Jersey, you will be taken back by the massive, glowing red letters spelling out WHAT TRENTON MAKES, THE WORLD TAKES. This slogan hangs from a railroad bridge over the Delaware River. The slogan was chosen in 1910, when Trenton was a bustling and thriving city. While today, Trenton has lost many of its businesses, Trentonians are proud to live in the city, and partners such as Novo Nordisk have invested their energy to support the community.  

Three years ago, Novo Nordisk invited us to be a part of their Trenton-based collaborative, “Ready Set Healthy.” Together, we work to engage children in healthy eating and exercise. The collaborative is designed to help improve the health and wellbeing of Trenton’s young people by increasing knowledge about and access to healthy, affordable foods, to provide more opportunities for physical activity, and to give students, parents, and caregivers the tools to make healthy lifestyle choices.

Novo Nordisk invited us into the collaborative to focus on increasing healthy food options and nutrition education at four elementary schools (Jefferson, Martin Luther King, Jr., Columbus, and Robbins). When we began in 2015, our first project was to partner with 37-year old Trenton-based non-profit, Isles, to organize tastings of seasonal recipes. We also taught quick, nutrition lessons (WITS Bits) in the classroom. As students’ interests of food and nutrition piqued, so did our program.  

While we began to teach culinary and nutrition lessons, Francisca Sohl, General Manager of Aramark (Trenton’s food service) became a invaluable partner to us. Together, Ms. Sohn and WITS Program Director Marion Williams discussed ways to bring new recipes, marinades, and sauces on the menu; for example, we prepared a fresh citrus marinade for chicken, and it was popular with both students and teachers.

Last fall, Chef Anwar led a WITS Vegetarian Chili Lab in all four of the Ready Set Healthy! schools in Trenton. It was a hit, to say the least. As students walked through the hallway, they were welcomed by the the aroma of the cumin, chili powder, sauteed onions, garlic, and peppers that were being prepared for the chili. Teachers peeked their head into the classroom  as Chef Anwar and the WITS Lab students were preparing the food to ask, “is it ready yet?” and “can I have seconds?”. We were so glad, (but not surprised!) that the scratch-cooked food was welcomed.

We have also worked with Trenton’s school lunch staff to create a salad bar full of fresh and delicious vegetables –  a great accomplishment between Aramark and Wellness in the Schools. As the year went on, Ms. Sohn of Aramark asked “what else can we do together?” This started the conversation of putting a WITS recipe on the Trenton School Lunch Menu in all 26 schools. The first menu choice was a given – Aramark and WITS chose to place the vegetarian chili on the menu. Beginning this fall, 16,000 students are enjoying a new recipe item. What’s next in Trenton? Stay tuned!

WITS in our Nation’s Capital In Partnership with FoodPrints

By: Annie Hanrahan, D.C. Program Manager

Thanks to our new partnership with FoodPrints, Wellness in the Schools is now in Washington, D.C! FoodPrints teaches gardening, nutrition and cooking classes to students using an academic approach in the classroom to get them excited to try delicious and healthy food.

As a successful organization started in 2009 in Washington, D.C., FoodPrints wanted to continue elevating their culinary and nutrition program by cooking new recipes for weekly FoodPrints days, which is when the cafeteria served two scratch-cooked FoodPrints recipes. As they began, they quickly realized they needed more support. Enter Wellness in the Schools! We were included in a USDA grant (our first) to help develop and execute the recipes in 10 cafeterias. WITS Chef Jami Bailey works at a different D.C. public school each day, supporting, training and empowering the kitchen staff while encouraging the kids to try the food and get them excited about scratch-cooked meals.

During the last week of August, Chef Jami Bailey and I, along with Megan Geiger, RD from SodexoMagic, visited the four schools that were part of the FreshFarm FoodPrints Cafeteria Project last year. When I was a former WITS Chef visiting new kitchens in NYC, we were oftentimes met with staff who appeared nervous, standoffish or unsure of what to expect of the program. However, these schools were different; I was amazed by how welcoming each kitchen was to us as we were greeted with open arms and big hugs. We started the conversation by asking them which recipes they liked best and which were more challenging, since we wanted to design the menu with their input this year. At Watkins Elementary, lead cook Ms. Green and cook Ms. Byrd told us how they already promote veggies by asking the kids what the magic word is for broccoli, green beans or other vegetables of the day while the kids cheer in response “DELICIOUS!”

We also visited the FoodPrints teaching classrooms, which was a dream. They had their own teaching kitchen with some classrooms specifically designed for FoodPrints programming! Most of the schools also have huge gardens for students to plant, grow and harvest their produce for the classroom.

SodexoMagic has been an extremely supportive partner managing the kitchen staff. Megan, along with the help of Jami, has gone to each school to make sure the staff has all their ingredients, aiding with prep if needed. She also holds weekly conference calls to discuss recipes from the week and go over new ones for the following. SodexoMagic also has some of their own scratch cooked recipes on their menus that goes out to all the schools, such as roasted sweet potato and kale, ginger kale, hummus veggie wraps and sesame carrots. We hope to make classroom versions of her recipes to support all scratch-cooked items on the menu!

This Fall, Special Guest Chef Jose Andres and WITS Executive Chef Bill Telepan will be hosting a very special event to celebrate our partnership with FoodPrints and DCPS, as well as the amazing school cafeteria staff who are changing how meals are prepared for students. Our relationships with DCPS, SodexoMagic and FoodPrints have been a true partnership. As we work together through the challenges and successes of bringing healthy meals to kids, the support is felt across the board.

WITS Walks (and Swims/Bikes/Runs) the Talk

For the Wellness in the Schools leaders, the end of summer means an end to the triathlon season where they each spent many hours swimming, biking, running, and competing…successfully. As we are now well into the hustle and bustle of the new school year – with over 140 schools in 4 main markets (gulp) –  they leave behind a very active summer. A summer that perhaps got them in shape for what was to come this school year.

Nancy is not new to the triathlon scene – she was an age group competitor in the years immediately following university, where she was still seeking that same thrill of competing that she enjoyed in college. For those new to the triathlon world, a triathlon is a race that includes a swim, a bike and a run, in that order. Each race is a different distance – from a sprint to an Ironman distance (the Ironman is a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bicycle ride and a 26.22-mile run, or a marathon!).

Nancy entered her first triathlon in 1992  and competed in an Ironman in 1998. Soon a career, a family and life took over, but she maintained a healthy lifestyle and decided to get back into the competition two years ago. She picked up immediately where she left off – winning her age group. This summer, Nancy landed back in the water and on the roads and fulfilled an 18 year dream – to compete in the NYC Triathlon – a race with over 7,000 competitors. She clearly recalls the first year the race was held here in NYC, “I was 4-weeks pregnant with my first child and one of my closest friends entered the race. As much as I wanted to join her, I was nervous about competing. I waited 18 years to do this one.” And, the wait was worth it. Nancy not only won her age group, but was also the 38th woman overall, beating athletes who were half her age! “Whether we like it or not, our ages are written on our legs. While on the bike, I somehow thought it was fun to ride past a 25-year old and tell him that I could be his mother. I guess I just have many more years (and miles) on the bike!”

The highlight of the summer triathlon season, however, was the West Point Sprint Tri where Nancy met up with WITS Executive Chef Bill Telepan and Union Square Events Executive Chef John Karangis. This group certainly sets a high standard for what it means to stay healthy – Nancy once again crushed her competition. Perhaps inspired by his over-achieving partner, Bill took on the triathlon challenge and trained with his daughter Leah for West Point. After being on his feet all night, he would get up to train in the summer heat before going back to prepare lunch for his many diners. Bill explains that since his job is so physical he needs to stay in shape. He loves the triathlon training “because it changes everyday, so I never get bored. Plus it pushes me because there is a race at the end. I loved training with my daughter this summer because we got to spend a lot of time together.” Indeed, both Nancy and Bill remain a constant inspiration and role models to not only the many children whom we serve, but also to our adult team of chefs, coaches and change-makers.

But Nancy says she works out to stay happy as much as she does to stay in shape (often the two go hand in hand). She works out to meet up with friends and gets to do both at once. “I was lucky this summer to ride with two amazing girlfriends and strong cyclists. Before we knew it, we had gone 25 miles and had solved all of the world’s problems (or at least our own).”

We no longer harvest tomatoes. We no longer eat chilled cucumber soup. We now get pumpkins and peppers. In the same manner, our workouts change with the season. Nancy is back to running in Central Park, meeting up with good friends and maybe doing a little yoga in her living room on a rainy fall day. Bill sticks to the gym. Regardless, they remain in shape and healthy and ready to continue this fight to end childhood obesity…and to take on any challenge that the school lunch/recess revolution puts in front of them.

A Decade of Teamwork

By Marjorie Wolfson

As we come to a close of the 2018 school year, I take a moment to pause and reflect on our mission. For many of us who work in schools, the end of the year symbolizes a time to come together in celebration of our common purpose. Together we strive towards our shared goal of serving and educating kids and families. Together we are helping to inform the next generation, and our hope is that they will live long and fruitful lives. It is our time to take a break and spend time with our families.

I have been honored to have been part of WITS for the last 9 years. In over 120 schools across four states, we disrupt the norm and bring something unique to our communities. One of the reasons that we have been able to grow and reach more families is simply teamwork. The words collaboration, teamwork and partnership are synonymous with our work. Children are the messengers and, together, we are teaching them healthy habits to learn and live better. Together we are pushing towards whole-system innovation and making sense of what’s needed in today’s uncertain world.

As I come to a close in my tenure at WITS, I am delighted to share a few highlights. I have spent almost a decade in schools, developing and observing our programming, speaking to parents, administration, kids, community partners, school food staff, recess aids, and more. Through the years across all of our sites, I have seen communities respond to our work in such a positive way. Because of the importance of formal data, WITS engaged Columbia University Teachers College on a 2-year study to evaluate our work. By using seven schools as “WITS” schools, and seven schools as the Control (schools similar in terms of demographics and size but without WITS programming), the evaluation distinguished the positive effects of our programming on students.

Below are a few key takeaways that are integral to our work:

* There is great value in providing a wellness professional in schools to usher important wellness activities, classes and events.

* Chef and nutritionist-led nutrition education increases the consumption of healthy school lunch.

* Placing chefs and nutritionists at the salad bar encourages children to eat fruits and vegetables (Students in WITS schools ate more fruits and vegetables than students in Control schools – about 40% more).

* Students move more when fitness coaches lead activity breaks during the school day and indoor recess, a very inactive time of day (92% of boys and 94% of girls in Control schools were sedentary during Indoor recess in Winter 2016, while only 28% of boys and 22% of girls were sedentary in WITS schools).

* Wellness professionals can change the culture of schools by developing a holistic plan for year-long wellness events and activities.

It has been my honor and pleasure to work with an inspiring group of people, and I am proud of all that we have accomplished. I am very fortunate to have been part of the WITS community and for this, I will be forever grateful.

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Chef Anne’s Kitchen Show and Tell: From WITS BITS to Power Water

By Jesse Kramer

Chef Anne Williams is a modest person, but she can’t contain her excitement when talking about all the thank you notes she’s received from students over the years.

“Hundreds,” she says, “and overwhelmingly they mention the WITS BITS. That’s what they remember.”

Chef Anne will retire at the conclusion of the school year, but her work with Wellness in the Schools over the last decade has been instrumental to our growth and success. During her first year with WITS, Anne pioneered the implementation of WITS BITS, one of our core pieces of programming. The 20-minute classroom lessons have become a favorite among students. In these lessons, WITS Chefs use hands-on interactive demonstrations to teach basic nutrition concepts, such as the effects of eating too much sugar and fat.

The idea came to Anne when she faced obstacles marketing healthy lunch items to students at her first school. Anne realized she was spending all of her time in the kitchen and not enough time engaging students directly. To spark a connection with the students, Anne went into classrooms to give previews of lunch items, discuss salad bars, and make salad dressings. These were, unofficially, the first WITS BITS.

“It was a natural vehicle to get involved with the children,” says Anne. “It’s a lot of show and tell. The children feedback to me what they know — or think they know — and that makes them a lot more interested in what they have to share and what I have to say. It’s all about kids having ‘aha’ moments.”

As Anne developed relationships with students, she witnessed their interest in food, as well as her own popularity, surge.

“The feedback was obvious,” she says. “Suddenly the children wanted to have lunch with me. Every month or two, we would eat the school lunch together, and talk about what they liked and didn’t like.”

Anne has remained innovative through her final days at Wellness in the Schools. She has continued to expand the WITS BITS program, using, for example, a spiralizer in some lessons to the students’ delight. This past school year, she began adding fresh fruit to water to create Power Water, an idea she credits to Program Manager Errol Jones and WITS Chef Kisha Figueroa, and serving it during recess and WITS Play Days.

“Power Water allows the cooks and coaches to do something together,” Anne says. “It’s a way to motivate the kids to finish their exercise and teach them about hydration in a way they enjoy.”

Amazingly, Anne did not even begin culinary school until she was 50 years old. After growing tired of her job in the apparel industry, she found her true calling.

“The only thing I had a passion for and could get paid for was food,” Anne said.

After graduating from the French Culinary Institute (now the International Culinary Center), Anne worked several jobs in the food industry over the next 10 years — line cook, catering director, crisis management chef, and more. One day, she saw a job posting for Wellness in the Schools. The idea of working in schools and cooking healthy food for children resonated with her. She sent in her resume, and the rest is history.

“It took me 40 years to find a job I liked,” Anne says. “I like everything about working with Wellness in the Schools. I love the children, being in the kitchen, building relationships with the parents — the whole school environment. This job is everything I could’ve asked for.”

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Reflections: Coach PJ and Coach Jason

By Mallory Stellato

As the school year draws to a close, we say goodbye to another class of Adelphi University Fellows and prepare to welcome a new cohort of students. It is a unique partnership: candidates pursuing masters degrees in physical education and sports management at Adelphi University have the opportunity to serve as WITS Coaches for two years in exchange for full tuition coverage. Last year the first class of Adelphi Fellows graduated, and this year we thank Peter “PJ” Cody, Albert Gonzalez, and Steven Putkowski for their contributions to the schools where they have worked, and to their fellow coaches, wishing them the best in their future endeavors.

Below you will find lightly-edited reflections from Coach PJ, who graduated with a Masters in Sports-Based Youth Development on May 18, and from Coach Jason, who is finishing his first year in the program. Both agree that the program is an excellent opportunity to receive real life training and experience with children in public schools, while simultaneously learning the latest research and best practice in their graduate classrooms.

Coach PJ enrolled in the Adelphi program after teaching Physical Education in a charter school. Seeking the requisite masters degree to become a P.E. teacher in public schools, the Adelphi/WITS program was the perfect combination to move his career forward.

“Growing up on Long Island, it was the norm to have space to move around and play. Coming to the city as a teacher and coach, it was eye-opening to realize the lack of space and equipment in so many school buildings. In my WITS schools, P.S. 295BK, 108BK, and 160Q, I had to be creative coming up with games and activities that would be appropriate in the limited space.

“One of my schools does not have a gymnasium or auditorium for indoor recess. One day when it snowed, I took the kids to the cafeteria, then realized it was picture day and the only space available for kids to play was set up with photography equipment. On the fly, I set the kids up around the cafeteria tables and we did table aerobics. I led the kids in table push ups and dips, knowing that they were sitting for most of the day and there was a limited window to get their heart rates up. This, and many other examples, taught me how important it is to get kids moving, no matter what else is going on in the school day, and to be adaptable.

“My two years as a WITS Coach were different in that last year I worked in one school five days a week, and this year I work in three schools throughout the week, spending 1-2 days with each school. I’ve learned time management and prioritization skills, running from Brooklyn to Queens and juggling three different school administrations. With less time spent in each school, it was that much more necessary to develop positive relationships so that the time could be spent effectively and in the best interests of the students and school community.

“I’ve realized that whatever is bothering me and whatever is going on in the school day should not stand in the way of making sure kids have a healthy and nurturing environment in school. It’s important to build the trust of the students so you can be there in different ways for them. There are a lot of women in schools, so I understand the need to be there especially for the boys, who may need a male role model. Being a coach and giving boys that opportunity to let out their energy, and to confide in me, is a very rewarding aspect of being in this field.

“Now that I’ve graduated, I will be moving to Florida, where most of my family is. From my experience in New York, I know that every school building is different, but I have the skills and the tools in classroom management and fitness techniques to apply anywhere I go. My goal is to teach Phys. Ed. in Florida schools, and I know that having so much experience working with children in public schools under all sorts of constraints makes me more marketable in that I can bring more variety and richness to a school than someone who did not have this kind of training.

“Although two years is a short time to see long term change, I have really noticed some differences in the attitudes and actions of kids, parents, and teachers. I see kids at least thinking about what they’re putting in their bodies at lunch and being more aware of health than they would be otherwise. I’ve been thrilled to see parents coming to workshops and Family Fitness Fun Nights, learning about healthy recipes and active ways to have fun with their kids. My schools are also beginning to implement snack policies and educating parents on what can and cannot be brought into schools. There are so many different pieces that come together to support community-wide change, and I love being part of that change.”

Coach Jason Hadley comes to WITS from Ipswich, England with a lifelong passion for soccer and many years of experience as a youth coach.

“My first year as a WITS Coach and Adelphi Fellow has taught me the broader impact sports-based youth development programs can have on the health and wellness of the entire community. Being integrated in NYC public schools to assist with establishing a wellness and fitness culture, I have developed a deeper understanding of best practices that can reach the parents and families, teachers, and other school staff, and how we can adapt the delivery to best suit the communities and participants involved.

“Moving into my second year, my goals are to build and bridge relationships with communities and schools to develop and to set up a school based program that focuses on getting children to walk, run, or skip a mile a day and improve their physical and mental health! Using my expertise and experience from both in-school coaching and my graduate studies, I want to focus on sustainably training teachers to use fitness activities for the benefit of their students.

“In the future, I plan to continue to be involved with sport not-for-profits and develop sport programs free of charge to enable all children the opportunity to play and be involved in recreation and competitive sports. Having gained knowledge of how to do this through the Adelphi program, and understanding the value of partnerships as a WITS Coach, I envision a  body of partners working together to make these programs more widely accessible and more of a priority in the mainstream.”

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