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Decatur School Students to Benefit from 'Healthy Communities' Grant

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Southern Illinois University School of Medicine has received a $42,000 grant for a planning project to improve the health and wellness of students in Decatur public schools. Decatur Public School District #61 is funding the grant, received from the Illinois State Board of Education through a partnership with the Illinois Education Association.

“Education and health go hand-in-hand,” said Sameer Vohra, MD, JD, who is leading the team project. “Studies show that healthier children will get better grades and have reduced absences.” Vohra, a pediatrician, is executive director of SIU School of Medicine’s Office of Population Science and Policy, a think tank tPyramidhat designs programs and interventions to improve health both inside and outside the medical system.

Franklin and Muffley elementary schools in Decatur are part of the six-month planning project, which will include training for teachers, staff and administrators to help them understand how adverse childhood experiences impact the health and wellness of students.  

An increasing number of students face multiple life challenges, including parent divorce, parent incarcerations, drug addictions in the home, poverty, and child abuse or neglect, according to Jeanne Koehler, PhD, assistant professor of medical education at SIU School of Medicine, who is co-leading the project. “Students who experience extreme difficulties early in life are prone to learning difficulties and delays. They also may participate in risk-taking behaviors such as early sexual activity and drug and alcohol use,” she said. Multiple difficulties throughout childhood have a lifelong impact. “These students are susceptible to disease earlier in life and ultimately, their lives are being cut short,” Koehler added. “Looking at this from a health perspective and working with schools, parents and students, we hope to find solutions to improve learning and life outcomes."  

The grant is the first step in a larger partnership focusing on finding innovations to help teachers improve students’ academic performance. It combines two initiatives: the Keeping Kids Healthy Coalition and Innovation Incubators for Building Wellness and Resilience in Schools. In addition to the Illinois Education Association, collaborators include the Macon Piatt Regional Office of Education and the Education Coalition of Macon County.

“We look forward to building necessary infrastructure and creating the capacity to provide necessary exams, immunizations, vision and hearing screenings and other needed services to build a healthy safe community for the children of Decatur Public Schools,” said Assistant Superintendent Bobbi Williams.

Suzanne Kreps, DEA president said, “As a teacher, we know our students will benefit from this partnership with SIU School of Medicine to improve the health and wellness of our students. The healthier students are, the more they can learn. This is a win-win for the entire community.”

The team is using the “Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child” model to identify health and wellness needs. Future projects will include counseling and mentoring students, engaging parents in activities, and further collaborating with teachers and staff.  “Our goal is to create a model that will change the culture of schools,” Vohra said.

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