Opinion
Student Well-Being Opinion

Facing Up to the Obesity Problem

By Monica Bell — February 18, 2009 6 min read
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My middle school guidance counselor always seemed to have good intentions. So I expected only more lovely conversation when she called me into her office one afternoon. Instead, she offered an unsolicited bit of financial advice: “Monica, you have a single mom. You need to stop gaining weight so she can stop buying you so many new clothes. It’s expensive.”

This guilt trip was a miserable flop. It earned the counselor a spot on my now-discarded list of “People Who Get No Part of My Eventual Millions.” And it failed to deter me from gaining at least 50 pounds during the rest of middle school. (Unbeknownst to her, my mother enjoyed shopping for me.)

I was fortunate to have self-confidence, familial support, and academic capacity, which together insulated me at least partially from this and other embarrassing encounters. For many obese kids, however, stigma makes it hard to thrive academically or to adopt healthier habits. Schools often make obese kids feel worse about themselves, and their unhappiness undermines their success. For that reason, we should consider establishing charter schools that target children who struggle against obesity.

Endless reports detail the obstacles that obese children face at school. One much-discussed study conducted by researchers at University of Pennsylvania and Temple University indicated that obese children tend to miss school more often than children of normal weight. The authors speculated that these kids don’t have more medical problems—instead, they’re trying to avoid bullying. Another report, from Action for Healthy Kids, maintains that when they miss school, obese kids cost schools funding that could be used for wellness programs. (Many states, including New York, California, and Texas, consider student attendance when they dole out school aid.)

The same report notes that obese children also tend to have lower test scores and other academic deficiencies. Their feelings of depression and exclusion can be shockingly intense. An article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association claims that obese kids report more unhappiness than children undergoing chemotherapy. They may resort to binge eating. And worse: It’s no coincidence that 13-year-old Megan Meier, the well-publicized victim of a cruel prank involving a phony MySpace page, was preyed on for being insecure about her weight, and fought to drop pounds before committing suicide two years ago.

In many public schools, the kind of shaming employed by my guidance counselor years ago is common—and commonly counterproductive. A few programs, like DC Scores in Washington, do better by taking a positive approach to advocating good nutrition and healthy activity. But the failure of governments and school officials to fund, staff, evaluate, or take responsibility for implementing these programs makes them rare.

At a charter school designed to educate obese kids both academically and physically, school leaders could select teachers and administrators who were sensitive to the physical and psychological perils of childhood obesity, and trained to help kids overcome them. Ideally, some teachers would be obese themselves, and others might have successfully lost large amounts of weight. Physical education could include activities that obese children would be more likely to enjoy. And classes could teach nutrition habits that take into account the genetic and hormonal traits associated with obesity.

A successful school targeting obese children would need only to market effectively, not to exclude. Most charter schools cannot bar any student from trying to get in. School outreach workers could identify parents of obese children and tell them about the school. Local medical communities, including free clinics and emergency rooms, could give out information as well. Charter school interventions should start during the elementary school years. Even if the social isolation of obese kids is worst during middle school, obesity and obesity-related underachievement are best addressed when caught early. It might not be ideal for a school to label children as obese, but at least the labeling would be by choice. And it’s hard to conceal obesity anyway.

The charter schools would also need to educate parents, who can aggravate their children’s obesity because they are poorly informed about nutrition themselves. The schools could train parents on healthy and affordable grocery shopping. They could also reduce fast-food reliance by teaching parents how to quickly prepare nutritious meals. And, of course, these charter schools would have to reject the junk-food industry, whose presence in schools has played a large role in creating this problem.

Proponents of single-sex classrooms in predominantly African-American schools have argued that teaching black boys separately can shield them from bias and train them to achieve. The Harvey Milk High School in New York City’s East Village has a comparable philosophy for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youths. The Harlem Children’s Zone focuses on the distinct needs of poor children through providing them with essential social services in addition to classroom teaching. The changeability of obesity makes it somewhat different from race or sexual orientation. But statistics show that, like poverty, obesity tends to stick around. Obese children face serious challenges and need serious options.

Charter schools are the best venue for the diet-and-exercise programs that effectively combat obesity. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the first way to help obese kids manage their weight is to meet with them once or twice a week, for six to 12 months, and to teach them about nutrition and exercise. In studies, kids who went through programs that included healthy-lifestyle training and counseling, such as Bright Bodies in New Haven, Conn., weighed up to 23 pounds less, on average, than obese children who did not. The week-to-week constancy required is one that full-time school can more consistently provide.

To be sure, the jury is still out on charter schools. Yet, it would be virtually impossible for the public education system to provide enough funding for regular schools to tackle childhood obesity—counseling, nutrition classes, grocery store visits, and other interventions are expensive. Charter schools can draw upon a wider array of financiers. And charter schools aren’t going away anytime soon. If charter schools that target specific groups are a long-term fixture of American education, obese kids shouldn’t be left out.

At least one school along the lines I envision already exists in the private sector. Wellspring Academies, a boarding school with campuses in California and North Carolina, teaches nutrition and activity and provides counseling to obese children and young adults ages 11 to 24. But Wellspring’s program is available only for families who can pay for it, and who want to send kids away to school. The minimum tuition for one semester is $25,000 (an especially high price to poor families, which are disproportionately obese). And total enrollment, including both campuses, is limited to about 145 students.

Charter schools, which are publicly financed but largely independent in their philosophy and governance, often adopt culture-shifting as one of their goals. At their best, they change the behavior of kids who are holding themselves back—and also change how society understands them. Schools that targeted obese kids could teach them better habits and shield them from constant embarrassment, yes, but they could also empower these young people to excel. And what a change that would be: for society to look at even its obese children with pride instead of pity.

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