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Doctors Partner With Chula Vista School To Combat Obesity

Aired 4/12/12 on KPBS News.

One Chula Vista school is hoping a targeted approach will lead to students and families making healthier choices.

One of the fifth grade classes at Chula Vista’s Rice Elementary School files into a large classroom. The students jockey for seats far from the front of the room but close to their friends. Resource teacher Sharon Hillidge reminds them why they’re here.

Dr. Mary Palomino talks to fifth graders at Rice Elementary in Chula Vista about walking more to get exercise while Dr. Brian Snook hands out pedometers.
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Above: Dr. Mary Palomino talks to fifth graders at Rice Elementary in Chula Vista about walking more to get exercise while Dr. Brian Snook hands out pedometers.

“Last year we did a project where we did heights and weights on everybody in the school district," she says. "And this year we’re doing just a mini project and that’s with fourth and fifth graders here at Rice. And part of it is that we’re going to do heights and weights again."

The student line up five at a time to step behind the screen at the back of the room where their heights and weights get recorded.

In 2008 20 percent of children ages 6 to 11 across the country were obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. When Hillidge carried out the district's height and weight project in the fall of 2010 - she found the problem was even more acute in Chula Vista.

The district weighed and measured nearly all of its students. Almost half of first grade girls and a third of first grade boys were overweight. Half of the district’s sixth graders were overweight and a quarter were obese. At every grade level the districts students’ median body mass index – a measure of healthy weight based on height and age - was significantly higher than the national median. The results were anonymous, so no students were told whether they were at an unhealthy weight.

“We were surprised." Hillidge says of their findings, "because we as a district were not as healthy as we had a assumed.”

The information launched the district into action. Schools have been hosting health fairs, some have started walking clubs and the district is rewriting wellness policy. It also drew Dr. Shaila Serpas and doctors she oversees from the Scripps Family Residency Program to Rice.

“It was very compelling to see that the rates at several schools – including Rice, around the corner from our practice had as much as 40 percent of the school population in what we would categorize as unhealthy weight zones,” Dr. Serpas says.

The fourth and fifth graders getting weighed and measured at Rice are the focus of a partnership with Serpas’ clinic. This time the screening aren’t anonymous – parents will get their child’s results. They’ll have the opportunity to meet with Dr. Serpas and her team at the school’s wellness fair in May to learn about steps they can take to improve their child’s health.

But Rice Principal Ernesto Villanueva says a goal of the partnership is to help students make healthier choices on their own, too.

“What we’re trying to do is establish a plan where the students are seeing where preventative measure can be taken where there’s a cause and effect based on nutrition and exercise,” he says.

One part of that plan is bringing doctors into the school during several fourth and fifth grade physical education classes.

On a Wednesday morning a few weeks after the height and weight screening, Dr. Mary Palomino and Dr. Brian Snook are going over some simple guidelines with part of a fifth grade class.

The doctors are using an idea called 5-2-1-0, developed by a nonprofit called Let's Go!.

“So, five means eating five fruits and vegetables a day, two is two hours or less of recreational screen time, meaning TV, video games, computer, one is one hour or exercise a day and zeros is zero sugar drinks a day,” Dr. Palomino says.

The students remember what each number stands from their first class with the doctors and some even report they've talked to their family members about the guidelines.

The doctors also have pedometers and lead the students on a walk around school grounds to show students an easy way to get more exercise.

The first phase of this partnership may focus on the fourth and fifth graders – but the whole school community is changing.

“When we came together we knew we wanted to do something that was going to include all of our stakeholders, including our staff members,” Villanueva says.

The school’s new wellness committee of parents, teachers and staff work with the doctors on things like a newsletter than includes healthy recipes and removing cupcakes, cookies and other unhealthy snacks from classroom celebrations.

No one is expecting the changes at Rice to lead to instant results. If the proportion of students with unhealthy weights stays the same instead of increasing when they repeat the height and weight screening in the fall, HIllidge and Dr. Serpas say that’ll be a good sign. Villanueva is looking for more subtle signs of success, too.

“What kind of questions are our students asking, what is it they’re thinking based on this additional information?”

Back in the fifth grade PE class it sounds like Villanueava may have to be careful what he wishes for.

"Which is better, regular milk or chocolate milk?" Dr. Palomino asks.

The students answer with a chorus of "regular!"

One girl raises her hand to ask "then why do they give us chocolate milk?"

Whether those kinds of questions are the start of a healthier school community will take time to see. Dr. Serpas and her clinic are committed to being at the school for years to figure out what works in getting kids to make healthier choices.

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