Friday, July 15, 2011
When a Chula Vista teacher proposed weighing the kids her school district, she didn’t expect to find an obesity epidemic that outpaced the nation’s. The city’s elementary schools are planning to fight the trend.
Hundreds of students at Chula Vista’s Kellogg Elementary School are lined up for stretching exercises at the school's first annual year-end fitness fair. Once everyone is limber the kids run off in every direction to get to the front of the line for activities like hula hoops, hurdles and a football toss.
The fair is a fun alternative to watching a movie in class as the school year winds to an end.
“It’s really good that we get to get out and like exercise instead of being cooped up in the classroom,” says Sixth Grader Monique Pinto.
Carol Castanon, the mother of another student agrees the afternoon was a nice change of pace from kids' normal leisure activities. “We have all these games and they’re so absorbed on TV," she says, "now they’re actually playing outside, so that’s awesome.”
Having fun is one goal of the afternoon. But the fair is part of a year-long effort at the school that included hiring a part-time physical education teacher, starting a morning running club and expanding after-school soccer and flag football programs.
“Chula Vista Elementary school District did a district-wide height and weight surveillance in the fall," Perez says. "That data came back to individual schools and to the district and what we saw: that there was a need to improve the physical fitness of our students and that that is tied to greater achievement and learning and feeling good about being at school – so this is important to us.”
Nationally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate about 17 percent of kids between the ages of 2 and 19 are obese. First Lady Michelle Obama has said the childhood obesity epidemic threatens the physical health of an entire generation.
But Chula Vista’s height and weight survey found things are even worse in their schools. Nearly half of first grade girls and more than a third of first grade boys were overweight. By the sixth grade more than half of all students were overweight and a quarter were obese.
The district's boys were heavier than the girls, a fact the survey's creator, Sharon Hillidge, attributes to the fact that little boys are more likely to spend their free time playing video games or watching TV.
Across California student’s weight and height are only recorded in the fifth grade. After it’s survey, Chula Vista Elementary School District is now the only district in the state to have this detailed a picture of nearly all students from preschool to sixth grade.
"I think that’s what I’m learning, is that not having this data – most of us have been planning programs, we’ve been operating with assumptions and very limited information," says Hillidge, who is the district's fitness resource teacher. "So, having this wealth of data helps us do a better job of knowing what we need to do.”
The district's schools with the highest rates of obesity are located in what have come to be known as food deserts. There are fast food restaurants nearby, but few grocery stores. There are fewer parks. And the neighborhoods tend to have more violent crime. All of these factors stand in the way of making healthy lifestyle choices. That’s why the district’s superintendent Francisco Escobedo is intent on working with student’s families.
“We need to be very focused in our approach to ensure that we’re actually changing lifestyles and the focuse has to be in those specific critical areas where we have higher incidence of obesity. Because we’ve been having this problem for over a decade and we do a shotgun approach," Escobedo says.
The district is overhauling its lunch program. They’ll bring in more local produce and give students healthier options. They’re looking to hire physical education teachers for some schools and they want to start after-school farmers markets.
“Typically when you have systemic change, it takes 5 to 10 years," Escobedo says. "And we’re trying to accelerate that change because we’re talking about the lives of kids. We’re talking about kids who, when they’re 30, will have either diabetes or heart attacks. We cannot wait – we have to do something now.”
If Chula Vista can accelerate these changes, they hope their efforts -- like Kellogg Elementary's fitness fair -- can serve as a model for school districts across California and the country.
Hillidge’s campaign to tell parents, teachers and other staff about her findings has already started to trickle down to the students at Kellogg Elementary. Sixth Grader David Crook knows the afternoon of fun activities is equal parts fun and serious.
“I know this for a fact," he says, "most kids is like obese and they don’t go out and be active, so this a good chance for all of us to play, and be active and have a good time.”
In the fall of 2012 the weight and height survey will be repeated and the district will learn if the campaign to improve students’ health has made a difference.
Video by Katie Euphrat