Aurora Public Schools and Cherry Creek School District will jointly launch a new wellness program for fifth-graders this fall that pairs classroom instruction about balancing calories with promotions sponsored by local merchants to help them become “healthy consumers.”

The new logo for the 5th Gear program is a combination of designs submitted by students.

The program, unveiled on Monday, is called 5th Gear Kids. It’s modeled on Ski Country USA’s successful Fifth Grade Passport Program, which lets fifth graders across the state ski for free in hopes not only of turning them into lifelong skiers, but also in hopes of getting them to bring paying family members along with them when they ski.

“We want the kids to become incentivized to become healthy consumers,” said Lisa Jenson, director of community programs for the Colorado Center for Health and Wellness, which collaborated with the school districts to create the program, with funding from the Colorado Health Foundation and the Children’s Hospital Foundation.

“We’re looking for business sponsors.”

Program must serve low-income as well as affluent students

Dr. James O. Hill, executive director of the Center for Health and Wellness and an internationally renowned expert on childhood obesity, said that despite the emphasis on consumerism, 5th Gear must also benefit low-income children. He said that’s one of the conditions the Colorado Health Foundation put on the grant.

“Our challenge is that these healthy options have to be available to all,” Hill said. “This won’t work if it’s just a program for the well-to-do. We must have options for the low-income.”

The new program works like this: Fifth graders will be introduced to the concept of “energy balancing” – taking in more calories on days of rigorous physical activity, while cutting back on less active days. It will happen in the science classes in Cherry Creek, and in the physical education classes in Aurora.

“They already learn about the human body in fifth grade, so this just adds another component that they haven’t really studied before, understanding the nutrition aspect,” said Megan Mistler-Jackson, 5th Gear coordinator for Cherry Creek schools.

“This is a good age, because the kids are just getting ready to go into puberty. As a science educator, I like it because it helps address this in a positive way right before they get to that point where they start growing rapidly. The science will help them understand how their bodies work, and that they need to store up energy for growth.”

The classes will include some hands-on activities such as measuring portion sizes and figuring out nutrition labels.

ID cards can access special promotions

They will also be issued 5th Gear ID cards that will entitle them to some special promotions. For example, if they use those ID cards at King Soopers, they’ll earn points if they buy foods with higher nutritional values. These “NuVal” scores are displayed on shelf tags in the grocery store.

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Recreation centers and some health clubs will also offer incentives such as discounted classes for fifth graders. PGA Tour Superstore will offer golf lessons, while tennis clubs will offer lessons and free equipment.

The youngsters can also score points for participating in those healthful activities. Eventually, they’ll be able to redeem points for prizes such as trips to Elitch Gardens or other kid-friendly destinations.

“We’re in the process of getting restaurants on board too,” Jensen said. “Subway will create some 5th Gear Kids specials, at discount prices, knowing they’ll bring the family along. The hope is that it will drive consumers to those businesses. That’s the strategy.”

In addition, the youngsters will take home a monthly newsletter, filled with coupons, to entice everyone in the family to take part in healthy activities and healthy eating.

Jensen says the program isn’t intended to replace other nutrition-related curricula or healthy-eating programs already in place, such as the Go Slow Whoa program, introduced in Aurora two years ago.

“We want to find ways to support those initiatives in the schools,” she said.

Program will eventually expand

She said eventually, the program could expand to other school districts.

“Our goal this year is to create several durable goods,” she said. “We want the curriculum for the science and PE classes, but we also want some evaluation tools. We want to know if it’s making a difference in what the kids are doing and not doing.

“As we roll this out, we’re developing the surveys and measurement tools to understand what makes it a successful program or not. So by the time others are ready to use it, we’ll know what’s transferable elsewhere.”

She said 5th Gear will work with Health Teacher, an online treasury of health-related classroom materials used in 8,000 schools nationwide, to include the curriculum in its database.

“But we really think the business side of things is just as important,” she said. “The reinforcement kids will get for making healthy choices, we feel, is crucial. Plus, it creates sustainability.”