Bulletin News

Health Interns Fill High-needs School Gap


Teachers at H.W. Smith School in Syracuse, N.Y., a city with one of the highest child poverty rates in the state, were frustrated. Non-academic concerns like poor nutrition were having a negative impact on their students.

They wished, for example, they could explain to their elementary-school charges how some students’ lunchtime favorite dish, the high-sodium Americanized version of ramen noodles, isn’t a healthy choice.

The educators didn’t have the time or the knowledge to give a science-based and age-appropriate explanation of general nutrition to their kindergarten through eighth grade students. For that matter, the teachers also weren’t able to address dental hygiene, mental health, drug misuse, healthy personal habits or how to make safe lifestyle choices — all of which were needed in the at-risk community they served.

So, SUNY Cortland alumna Heather Kelly Marzullo ’03, M ’10, the school’s multi-content leader, encouraged teachers at H.W. Smith to invite SUNY Cortland health education majors who were on track to earn state certification into the elementary school’s science classrooms to address wellness topics of the educator’s choosing.

As a result, last fall and again this semester, a total of 10 undergraduates have visited H.W. Smith School to complete the health education fieldwork they started the previous semester at a school closer to Cortland.

“We noticed students in the sixth grade who were making poor nutrition choices,” Marzullo said. “For example, eating ramen noodles with flavor packets that are just loaded with sodium. With the health interns, we did a whole lesson on what you’re doing to your body when you eat that.”

With direction and support from a Smith School science teacher, the interns with an eye on their future as professional health educators are providing a needed classroom lesson on how students can wisely manage their own health.

Matthew Moyer, a SUNY Cortland assistant professor of health and instructor of undergraduate and graduate student fieldwork in the discipline, oversees health students in this fairly new partnership between Marzullo’s employer and her alma mater.

Health education is not a typical part of schooling for youngsters through the sixth grade, especially in fiscally tight times where standardized testing and a knowledge of basic reading, writing and arithmetic crowd out most other content areas, Marzullo and Moyer said.

“You won’t find a kindergarten through sixth grade health teacher at many schools,” Marzullo said. “It’s pushed to the background of what is taught.”

“It depends on the school,” Moyer noted. “From the middle- to high-school level, having a certified health education teacher deliver the discipline’s curriculum is mandatory. But with an emphasis on other areas and state testing, a lot of the other areas fall to the side.”

Good health, however, is the foundation all students need for success in school and in life.

“We need health education in the schools to really promote the overall wellness of the student,” Moyer said. “To encourage them to have positive, healthy behaviors. To give them the knowledge to put these wellness skills into place.”

More teachers have asked for the health education majors’ assistance than SUNY Cortland can provide, he said.

“There is a pretty big demand out there,” Moyer said. “A lot of times the only way they get health education content in their classroom is through our preservice teachers.”

The need is especially great at a school like H.W. Smith, which enrolls approximately 900 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, including many of whom are from refugee families from Kenya, Mali, Syria, Myanmar (formerly Burma), Bangladesh and India and are learning English as a new language.

With knowledge about their own health, these and other young students have a much better chance of completing an education.

“For example, if heathy information is given to them in the third grade, then if they are in an environment where tobacco is presented to them, they will know what tobacco can do to them and can make decisions,” Moyer said. “It’s not about giving students academic content. It’s about how they can have a healthy lifestyle on a continuous basis.”

For the SUNY Cortland students, it’s about giving them hands-on experience in an urban school with a very diverse population. The College has a strong track record of assisting with health education in rural Cortland County schools and also with the Onondaga Nation School through an afterschool program grant that has expired, Moyer said.

The H.W. Smith partnership helps SUNY Cortland progress as an institution of higher education by offering future health educators experience with urban issues. Often, the type of mutually beneficial relationships that lead to this progress are made possible by the involvement of SUNY Cortland alumni.

“In terms of our alumni, it’s about giving back to the school, understanding the importance of our preservice teachers getting out and getting what they need,” Moyer said.

Marzullo, a 2014 Syracuse City School District teacher of the year and a SUNY Cortland adjunct professor, was one of the alumni catalysts for H.W. Smith’s partnership with Cortland.

While attended a school committee meeting aimed at fostering positive town-gown relationships, she encountered another Red Dragon, Linda Tillotson Foster ’88, the College’s coordinator of field placement. Foster dropped a seed for the idea in Moyer’s ear.

“She got the whole ball rolling,” Marzullo said of Foster. “Matt encouraged his health education students to attend a lecture I gave to members of the campus chapter of Kappa Delta Pi, the education honor society. I invited them to come up here and learn what are our expectations.”

It’s a three-way partnership: Foster places the interns. Marzullo finds interested teachers to work with interns. Moyer supervises from a distance.

 “We have developed a rapport,” Marzullo said of her two colleagues. “They know there is always someone there in the building if they need me.”

Marzullo works closely with educators in the classes where a SUNY Cortland intern has been placed to plan the specific area of well-being to be taught so the college student will be prepared.

After piloting the program last fall with interns working in pairs, Marzullo and Moyer decided the health interns can maximize their experience by working alone with the teacher as supervisor.

“We wanted to see how they did on their own without a partner there,” Marzullo said. “We want to give them some independence as the lead teacher.”

For Marzullo, bringing Cortland health interns into her school is only the latest expression of loyalty to her alma mater. As a teacher, she annually brings selected H.W. Smith schoolchildren to the SUNY Cortland campus to try their hand as her “teaching assistants.”

“They pass out papers for me, take notes and talk to me about their experience on the way home,” Marzullo said.

She hopes her own passion for teaching catches fire with the youngsters.

“Before we go back to Syracuse, I always go to the College Store with the students and buy them each a Cortland sweatshirt.”

The above left image includes four health education interns with their mentors at H.W. Smith School in Syracuse. Shown, from left, are Matthew Moyer, Olivia Macbeth, Kayla Lowe, Alissa Tylee, Blaze, Heather Kelly Marzullo ’03, M ’10, and Alexandra Konnerth.