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 covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.