First Person

Proven anti-obesity programs hard to find

Student's at Denver's Lowry Elementary School pose with the $7,000 worth of new P.E. equipment the school bought with a grant that allowed it to adopt the SPARK curriculum.

Keeping kids thin and fit is no small order in 2011.

Schools experiment with countless ideas to battle children’s obesity. They’ve tried cooking classes, nutrition education, inviting kids to work in school gardens, improving cafeteria food, banning sugary snacks. They’ve upgraded playgrounds, tinkered with recess, mandated daily physical activity, organized bike clubs and revised physical education standards. They’ve coached parents, coached teachers, coached lunch ladies, coached coaches.

Yet for all the different approaches, the empirical evidence proving what works and what doesn’t  is remarkably sketchy. Evidence-based anti-obesity programs that repeated studies have proven effective simply don’t exist – yet, according to James O. Hill, director of the Center for Human Nutrition and the Colorado Nutrition Obesity Research Center, and one of the nation’s leading experts in anti-obesity efforts.

“If we’re really looking at programs shown to address obesity, there are none out there,” Hill said. “I recall one school study where they just spent millions of dollars, and they found the group that didn’t get the intervention did just as well as the group that did.”

That doesn’t mean, however, that schools shouldn’t keep trying, he said. And some efforts do seem to hold more promise than others. Below are three different approaches in Denver-area school districts that Hill and others say warrant further study to determine whether their early successes can be replicated. One focuses on nutrition, one on physical activity, and one on school environment.

Aurora: Go, Slow, Whoa! teaches kids to make good food choices

Knowledge is power, so they say. But sadly, it’s not willpower.

Knowing the nutritional facts of life doesn’t necessarily equate to making the best food choices. Just ask anyone who’s ever struggled to resist a doughnut or intended to say, “I’ll take the fruit,” but at the last second caved in to the allure of French fries.

The Go, Slow, Whoa program has expanded to eight Aurora schools this year.

Kids are no different from adults on this point. That’s why so many well-intentioned nutrition education programs succeed in teaching youngsters all about the many wonderful fruits and veggies, food pyramids, caloric requirements and all the other tools needed to create a balanced diet – yet fail to make a dent in real-life eating habits. Study after study shows such programs ultimately don’t change the way kids eat.

It’s still early in the game, but initial results from one nutrition education program being piloted in Aurora Public Schools might just have a measurable impact on children’s food choices.

Funded by a grant from LiveWell Colorado, the Go, Slow, Whoa program was introduced last year in one Aurora school, Laredo Elementary. This year, in partnership with KMGH Ch. 7, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and LiveWell, it has been expanded to seven more schools, and officials hope to eventually expand it to all elementary schools in the district.

A simpler, color-coded food pyramid

Created by the nutritionists at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, Go, Slow, Whoa involves a color coding system that helps youngsters make smart food choices by making it easy for them to identify and eat lots of nutrient-dense foods, but not making any foods totally forbidden.

“It’s a simplified food guide pyramid,” said Mona Martinez-Brosh, a registered dietitian and director of nutrition services for the school district.

As students go through the cafeteria line at school, they’ll see the color-coded symbols above each option. Foods tagged with a green apple symbol are “go” foods. They are high in fiber, low in fats, and good to eat any time you want. They’re things like fresh fruits and vegetables, lean meats, nuts, low-fat milk.

PHOTO: Hayleigh Colombo
Some students at Aurora's Park Lane Elementary eat lunch. The cafeteria pizza - unlike most pizzas - is made with whole wheat and lowfat cheese, so it's a "Slow" food. The lowfat milk is a "go" food.

“Slow” foods, tagged with a yellow circle, are still nutrient-dense, but have a little more fat and sugar: they’re things like pancakes, or turkey sausage or peanut butter. They’re things that are still wise choices, but shouldn’t be eaten quite as often or in as great a quantity as the “go” foods.

“The pizza we serve at school – with low-fat cheese and whole wheat crust – is a ‘slow’ food, but we tell them that the pizza you get from your local delivery is not,” Martinez-Brosh said.

“Whoa” foods get a red light symbol. The message is “proceed with care.” It’s on foods high in fat or sugar, typically fried foods, sugary sodas and desserts. Don’t give them up entirely, but they should only be eaten once in awhile.

“You don’t often find these foods on our school menu, but salad dressing can be a ‘whoa’ food. If you eat it frequently, in larger portions, it can lead to gaining weight.”

Teachers, parents must deliver a consistent message

But beyond simply coding foods in the cafeteria, Go, Slow, Whoa seeks to involve parents, and to see to it that students hear a consistent message all day from their classroom teachers and the physical education teacher.

In Aurora, parents were invited to come to a breakfast at the start of the year, and to learn how the program works.

“We tell them we need their help in making sure they’re buying more of those types of ‘go’ foods at home,” Martinez-Brosh said. “I have one of my own employees who came to me and said her child came to her and said, ‘No, we can’t eat that. That’s a ‘whoa!’ food.”

In addition, students get hands-on food preparation instruction and food tastings in their classrooms as part of their regular lesson plans. And, occasionally, students who do a good job of selecting ‘go’ foods with their lunch can win prizes.

Does it work? One study found that elementary-aged children who’d been exposed to a similar program were, three years later, drawing 67 percent of their total calories from heart-healthy foods, compared to less than 57 percent of the total daily calories for children who didn’t go through the program. That same study also confirmed what many parents and nutritionists have long suspected: that just about all children, regardless of their level of nutrition education, still consume about a third of their total daily calories from snack foods, desserts and pizza.

Fresh produce sales climb in Aurora

In Aurora, officials do have a little evidence that their efforts may be making a small but measurable difference. Just before the program was introduced at Laredo in April last year, 200 students were surveyed about their ability to recognize healthy eating choices. For example, they were asked if they should choose popcorn with or without butter at the movies. At a restaurant, should they choose a breaded fried chicken sandwich or a grilled chicken sandwich. A month later, they were given the same survey and the results were compared.

“For most of the choice pairs, it went up from about 75 percent who made the healthy choice in the beginning to about 80 percent on the post-test,” said Mya Martin-Glenn, program evaluator for the school district.

Of course, “should” and “would” are two different things, Martin-Glenn acknowledged. But other questions also indicated a measurable increase in the children’s intentions to make healthy choices.

“We asked them how likely they were to do things like drink low-fat milk instead of whole milk, and we had about 65 percent who said they were likely to in the beginning, and that increased to 73 percent on the post-test,” she said. “But we didn’t actually follow them around to see if that’s what they did.”

A more concrete measure of success came in the Laredo cafeteria, where the quantity of fresh fruits and vegetables consumed climbed between 50 and 75 percent during the month-long pilot program, Martinez-Brosh said. She’s seeing similar increases in the schools participating in the program this year.

“I think the kids at this age want to make those right choices,” Martinez-Brosh said. “They just don’t know which foods are which until we educate them.”

In coming days, EdNews Parent and Education News Colorado are chronicling other school programs aimed at curbing obesity that are showing early signs of success. Read about Denver’s SPARK school fitness program. Read about the fate of workplace wellness strategies in Colorado schools, and an overview of childhood obesity in Colorado.

First Person

I spoke with our governor during his TNReady listening tour. Here’s what I hope he heard.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Tara Baker raises her hand to talk during Gov. Bill Haslam's Sept. 4 roundtable discussion about state testing challenges. An assistant principal at Nashville's McGavock High School, Baker was among about 150 educators invited to participate in Haslam's six-stop "listening tour," which began Aug. 31 in Knoxville and ends Sept. 18 in Gibson County.

As the testing coordinator for a large high school in Nashville, I was in the eye of the proverbial storm this spring as tens of thousands of Tennessee students slogged through technical snafus and breakdowns in the state’s return to online testing.

It was ugly.

The daily stops and starts sucked the joy of learning right out of our school community. And the testing platform was not the only thing that broke down. Students were frustrated to the point of tears after their hard work disappeared behind a spinning blue cursor.

Students and their teachers should never feel that level of exasperation and futility.

That’s why I was thrilled to be invited — along with about 150 other educators from across Tennessee — to troubleshoot testing problems with Gov. Bill Haslam this month during his six-stop “listening tour” on TNReady, the assessment that’s now entering its fourth year.

I wanted the governor and his education commissioner, Candice McQueen, to know just how bad testing went at my school, and to hear observations and ideas from ground zero for moving forward.

I talked about our school’s disappointment and tears as we persevered through a rocky start, with already overtested students exasperated by what felt like unending technical difficulties. “They were defeated,” I told the governor. “It crippled us before we really ever got started.”

I shared how only 36 out of 500 students in our English III classes were able to successfully submit their essays for one part of their online exam. Imagine working for over an hour to read and examine an article and construct an in-depth response, only to have your computer freeze or shut down before you could finish. Our sophomores had more success, but we still had almost 150 incomplete submissions in that class after multiple attempts. The stories were similar for students in Integrated Math, Chemistry, and U.S. History. While I can’t know for sure, I believe the intensity of the problems contributed significantly to our school being rated recently at the state’s lowest possible level for academic growth — a devastating blow to me and my colleagues.  

The governor’s 90-minute roundtable discussion, held in a middle school media room in the town of Franklin, was cathartic for many of us present at the fourth listening tour stop. We realized that we were not alone in our frustrations and concerns.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Educators in Middle Tennessee participate in the governor’s fourth roundtable discussion at Freedom Middle School in Franklin.

Gov. Haslam and Commissioner McQueen listened intently, and I was grateful for the opportunity to share my school’s experience. But a lot of ideas and emotions were compressed into a relatively short amount of time. At the end of the day, here’s what I hope they heard:

We spend too much time on testing and not enough on educating students. Teachers talked about using class time to take practice tests in the fall, the long three-week testing window in the spring, and the sheer number of tests that students are required to take.

We should still test; we just have to do it better. Teachers want valid data. We want useful and meaningful feedback. But we need to know that the information provided is a true representation of what our students know. And we should be able to accomplish that with shorter, more thoughtful tests that cut down on subparts, testing times, and the number of questions. The current testing regimen isn’t working. It stresses out our students, teachers, and families.

We are not ready for online assessments in Tennessee. Computer-based testing generates faster results, but it introduces many factors that currently are beyond school or district control. Dead batteries, network updates, lack of internet connectivity and bandwidth — these are not things that schools can regulate with certainty, and they directly impact testing. Most importantly, until we have enough computers so that every student has one-to-one access to a device, we should have other options and school-level contingency plans in place. This could mean having paper backups on hand or quickly available.

Teachers and test administrators need to know the plan! As the link with our stakeholders, we need training to make sure the information that we provide students and parents is correct. It’s our job to promote the assessments to the community but, to do that, we should completely understand the process and be appropriately trained, including what to do when things go wrong.  

Tests need to reflect the diversity of our students. Reading selections should be varied to address students’ abilities, experiences, and lifestyles. For example, Jane Eyre is not relatable to any of my urban high school students. Could we pull from some high-interest contemporary novels, such as Jason Reynolds’ “Long Way Down,” about a black teenager whose brother dies in a shooting?

PHOTO: TN.gov
Gov. Bill Haslam listens during his Sept. 4 roundtable discussion. An advisory team is using the feedback to develop principles and recommendations for consideration by his and the next administration.

This school year, the stakes are higher than ever to get testing right. No one has confidence in last year’s scores or results. How could they when we learned on the third day of testing that the scores wouldn’t count? And this wasn’t our first rodeo with TNReady problems, either. For the new school year, we must get it right to rebuild confidence in the assessment. To the state’s credit, the Department of Education already has made some good moves — for instance, bringing aboard ETS, a reputable testing company, and planning stress tests for online assessments in the fall and spring. I welcome the on-the-ground input of 37 educators serving as our state’s new TNReady ambassadors, as well as steps to improve customer service before and during the next round of testing.

But will it be enough? The above list of concerns represents what I heard at this month’s roundtable discussion and from other educators, too.

Thanks for listening, Gov. Haslam. I hope that yours and the next administration consider this a call to action.

A former English teacher, Tara Baker is an assistant principal at McGavock High School, a 2,400-student learning community in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

First Person

We’ve come a long way in addressing student stress and trauma. I could use help, too.

PHOTO: Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

There’s an old adage, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” But as a paraprofessional in Chicago, my cup is almost drained.

Each day, I provide academic, emotional, and behavioral support for over 200 students. The amount of mental and emotional energy it takes to calm a single student down, redirect or remove them from the class, and provide appropriate consequences is overwhelming — even with experience — when there are 11 other six-year-olds in a classroom that need my help.

Related: Chicago teachers, take our back-to-school survey

I look forward to coming to work in the morning, but by the time I get home, I barely have the energy to make my own dinner or plan activities for the next day. I tune out almost everything and everyone. While I love what I do, it is hard.

This heavy responsibility affects my mental health and the health of all educators, and it certainly impacts our ability to properly teach and support students. In the wake of Chicago’s teacher assistant layoffs this summer, my colleagues and I have dealt with the added stress of job uncertainty, too.

But we haven’t acknowledged the effects of that stress on educators, and we aren’t equipped with support to manage it.

The good news is that we are having a conversation about the effects of stress and trauma on our students. I’ve watched advocates successfully push for change: Educators for Excellence-Chicago, an educator-led organization I am involved with, brought some of these issues to light last June. Since then, we have held citywide problem-solving forums in partnership with the district’s Office of Social Emotional Learning and successfully advocated for the passage of two school state resolutions to ensure that student trauma is appropriately recognized throughout Illinois.

The recent focus on social-emotional learning — also known as “soft skills” — in our classrooms is also helping schools better prepare students for challenges that no child should face, but many do.

Those challenges are real: In my classroom, one student is a caregiver for his parent, another has lost multiple siblings to gun violence, and many others have parents that work long hours and are rarely around. These experiences have a considerable impact on their learning; often, students don’t have the tools to cope with this stress, and so they express their frustration by acting out in disruptive ways.

And yet, amid all this advocacy for our students’ mental health, we neglect our own. I worry that without a healthy state of mind, educators can’t offer their best teaching and attention to students, perhaps causing additional harm to kids already dealing with heavy burdens outside of school.

I don’t think it has to be this way. If more funding was allocated to our schools for student counseling, it would allow educators more time to focus on teaching. Our schools could provide social and emotional support to our students and staff to help them learn coping mechanisms. We would be able to hold self-care activities for the entire school. Support staff could give students and parents tools to support them outside of school.

To ensure students’ well-being, we need our own help.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” Student and educator mental wellness are deeply interconnected, and we all must make sure we help educators be the best they can be for their students.

Shakita Smith is a teacher’s assistant at Pablo Casals School of Excellence in Humboldt Park. She is also a member of the Chicago Teachers Union and Educators for Excellence, a national teacher policy and advocacy organization.