The Other 60 Percent

Time to turn the tide on obesity, expert warns

HIGHLANDS RANCH – Nutrition expert Dr. David Katz paints a dire picture of a generation that’s literally being weighed down by a burden too heavy to carry.

Some tidbits from his “Feet, Forks and the Fate of Our Children” presentation Wednesday night at Rock Creek High School:

Type II Diabetes – once commonly known as “adult-onset diabetes” – is now being routinely diagnosed in children as young as 8. Teen-agers are needing coronary bypass operations. Chronic diseases of mid-life are being transformed into juvenile scourges. And if current trends continue, the percentage of overweight or obese Americans will hit 100% within 40 years. As a nation, we are projected to spend $340 billion annually on obesity-related ailments by 2018.

“The peril with regard to the epidemic of obesity in children and the related chronic disease is quite dire,” Katz told a group of parents and students who turned out for the presentation. “The effect of eating badly and lack of physical activity will cost our children more years of life than the combination of tobacco, alcohol and illicit drug use. Some say our children will have shorter life spans than their parents.”

“But as with all clouds, there’s a silver lining,” he said. “We don’t need to have a great biomedical advance or the next Nobel Prize to fix this problem. We simply have to apply knowledge we already have. Using what we already know about a short list of behaviors we can control, we can reduce the chronic disease burden by 80 to 90 percent…The levers are in our hands. They’re in our feet and our forks and our fingers.”

Katz is president and founder of the Turn the Tide Foundation, a Connecticut-based organization that is developing multiple strategies for schools and families trying to reverse the unhealthy trend toward obesity in children and teenagers. The foundation is trying to figure out just how to get kids to eat right and exercise more, and how to get parents – who often are struggling with weight problems of their own – to take the situation more seriously.

“People say where there’s a will there’s a way,” said Katz. “I don’t believe that’s true. We have to both cultivate the will and pave the way. And one way to cultivate will is for people to realize that they’re endangering their children.”

Katz, a physician, professor and director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center at Yale University, is a nationally renowned columnist who regularly writes about nutrition for everyone from The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal to Oprah’s ‘O’ magazine and Men’s Health. He’s a heavy hitter who normally commands a $25,000 speaking fee.

But Susan Beane, the outgoing chairwoman of the Health Advisory Council for Douglas County Schools, is nothing if not persuasive. After hearing Katz speak last year in Denver, she cajoled him into coming back to Colorado and speaking in Douglas County for free.

“He’s like the Springsteen of nutrition,” said Beane, who has chaired the council for the past three years. “He’s constantly doing research, and he really has a wonderful plan to turn around the situation we find ourselves in.”

Douglas County School District is serious about improving the health of its students and staff. “We intend to be the healthiest school district in the country by 2015,” said interim superintendent Steve Herzog.

This week, the district kicked off a  healthy schools competition that includes a pedometer challenge to reward teams who log the most daily steps, a “food environment” challenge to reward schools who make it easier to make healthy food choices and harder to make bad ones, and a “Challenge of the Day” activity.

Beane says more innovative proposals will soon be rolled out by the Health Advisory Council. “One of our members is focused on sleep,” she said. “There’s been a lot of study on rolling back school start times. It may be easier for some people to have the kids start school earlier in the morning, but it’s not in the best interests of the kids.”

Katz promotes three strategies developed by Turn the Tide Foundation: the school-based Nutrition Detectives that teaches elementary children how to make smart food choices; the ABC for Fitness program, which includes ways to build in brief physical activity bursts into every classroom throughout the day without using up instructional time; and Nu-val Nutrition Quality Labeling, a supermarket-based food ranking system that gives a nutrition score from 1 to 100 to more than 45,000 food products.

He also praised LiveWell Colorado, a nonprofit organization committed to reducing obesity in Colorado by promoting healthy eating and active living. Just this week, Live Well Colorado released a Food Policy Blueprint that identifies the most pressing needs and opportunities to strengthen access to healthy foods in the state.

These and other programs are among the “sandbags” that Katz says America needs to hold back the flood of obesity-related health problems. “If we do enough things right, and build them one on top of another, then the levee will hold,” he said.

Katz preaches a no-guilt gospel about the path to health. “If you are struggling with your weight, it is not your fault,” he says. “The environment is not of your devising. Don’t tell me there’s some epidemic lack of willpower.”

He took the nation’s food industry to task for misleading labeling and for its aggressive promotion – especially toward children – of high-calorie nutrient-poor foods. “The food industry needs to be regulated,” he said.

But equally important is a sea-change in society’s approach to food, he said. Cultural values need to shift.

“Plate cleaning is a cultural anachronism,” he said. “If a child has the good sense to stop eating when he’s full, pat him on the back!”  Likewise, all-you-can-eat buffets need to disappear, along with bake sales.

He says efforts to find a “cure” for obesity – a pill to keep us slim – seem doomed to failure because putting on weight in the midst of plenty is what humans are genetically designed to do. For most of human history, that’s been a survival mechanism.

“For most of history, calories were hard to get and physical activity was unavoidable,” Katz said. “Now, physical activity is hard to get and calories are unavoidable.”

raising the curtain

Aurora high school students started rehearsing a musical about an earlier time — and discovered ‘harsh truths’ about today

Ebony Nash, left, sings during a rehearsal of Ragtime at Hinkley High School. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Nine weeks ago, more than 50 theater and choir students at Aurora’s Hinkley High School came together to begin work on a musical set in turn-of-the-20th-century New York.

At first, the kids did what high school students often do — cluster into familiar cliques, or self-segregate by race. Then the students started immersing themselves in the material.

The musical, “Ragtime,” intertwines the stories of a white family, a Jewish immigrant family and an African-American couple to spotlight differences and commonalities in the American experience.

At the urging of their teachers and directors, the Hinkley students began to use the plot and characters to examine their own actions, prejudice and biases. About 92 percent of Hinkley’s more than 2,100 students are students of color, the vast majority of them Latino.

The cliques and segregation slipped away. The production began taking shape.

“Ragtime” gets its Hinkley High School debut on Thursday and will be performed again on Friday and Saturday.

Chalkbeat sat down with a group of students involved in the production as they were in final preparations to learn about what their experience had taught them. The following is a portion of that conversation, slightly condensed and rearranged for clarity:

Janelle Douglas, a 17-year-old senior who portrays a friend of one of the story’s main characters, said the first time she saw and read through Ragtime, “it was intense.” She often cries as she rehearses her solo, sung during a funeral.

DOUGLAS: “I thought, this is powerful. This is overwhelming. This is amazing.”

Pamela Arzate, 17, plays the role of Evelyn Nesbit, a real model and actress who is incorporated into the fictional story and accused of being shallow.

ARZATE: “It’s very eye-opening because you look at it and it’s just a simple musical, but if you take a step back and go to the real world, it’s the exact same thing that’s going on today.”

Hodaly Sotelo, 17, plays the role of Mother, a woman whose attitudes toward her identity as a wife and woman evolve throughout the story.

SOTELO: “It reminds me of when I was younger and I was like, ‘Oh yeah, we’re over all that racism.’ But now, I look back and I think, what the heck? This stuff is still going on and we thought it was way over.”

Brianna Mauricio-Perez, 17, is one of two student directors.

MAURICIO-PEREZ: “It talks about all of the harsh truths that no one wants to talk about.”

DOUGLAS: “I think it’s safe to say it shows the true colors of our history.”

MAURICIO-PEREZ: “Even within our cast we did have to have a talk about how we were so separated because we were at the very beginning. Everyone was in their little groups and with their friends. You just want to keep to yourself.”

DOUGLAS: “It was literally ‘Ragtime.’”

MAURICIO-PEREZ: “We had a big talk with everybody. Things have gotten so much better. By the end of Act Two, we were all mixed up.”

Brenda Castellanos, 17, plays the role of Emma Goldman, drawn from a real-life political activist and anarchist.

CASTELLANOS: “Now that we’re closer, now that we’re all comfortable, we put in more effort.”

After nearly every rehearsal, teachers and directors give students a talk, urging them to immerse themselves in the feelings of their characters, relating to them if necessary through their parents, grandparents or ancestors who were immigrants, or through current events.

“What if you saw someone beaten, and bloodied and killed in front of you?” one director asked.

They also remind students of why the play should be impactful. “You have to figure out how for two-and-a-half hours you can give hope to that audience,” Marie Hayden, Hinkley’s choir director told students last week.

CASTELLANOS: “I think it it helps us. Every day, we get more into it and more into it until we actually believe it. You actually feel it — like how Janelle feels when she’s singing and she starts crying and makes everybody cry. We all feel connected.”

Students say they have different scenes that impact them the most, but they don’t hesitate to find how the scenes relate to their life despite the story being set in the first decade of the 1900s. Hayden’s class and the practice for the musical are safe places where they can discuss those parallels, they said.

Shavaun Mar, 16, is a junior who plays the main character of Coalhouse Walker Jr., a ragtime piano player who is the target of racial attacks and struggles with revenge and forgiveness.

MAR: “I feel like that is crucial that we give people those opportunities to talk because a lot of people have very valid things to say but they just don’t have a way to get it out.”

CASTELLANOS: “The shootings.”

ARZATE: “The racism. They help us discuss it because there’s so many things that are going on. Pretty much everyday there’s a tragedy going on. And so, in a way, we can use that sentiment, that emotion that we feel with the real world and convey it when we’re doing this show. We use those feelings and we try to think about it in that way. To display that emotion. To display it to everyone else. And not directly represent what’s going on today but just to give them that ‘aha’ moment, like ‘wow.’”

Ebony Nash, 17, plays the character of Sarah, an innocent girl who wants to help her boyfriend settle his problems.

NASH: “It just makes us want justice in real life because these things are still going on even though it’s not out there. It just makes us want justice for our community. This musical showed me that I need to become better within myself because I’m not perfect.”

SOTELO: “It opened my eyes a lot more for sure. This kind of just makes me realize the problems I have. It makes me realize yea, I’m having immigration issues with my father right now, but that also my friends, you know, they’re going through the same thing too. This DACA stuff or this coming out stuff. I became more accepting of what other people might be going through and how I can help.”

MAR: “The past few years, I have been in a bit of a shell. So putting myself in this situation and pushing myself to be this other person has really shown me what I’m capable of and it’s helping me break out of that shell and realize who I am as a person.”

NASH: “Basically, this is our getaway from real life because we get to come on stage and be somebody else. It also makes us want to put the story out right so people can understand. So people can feel what we want them to feel.”

CASTELLANOS: “That there’s hope after all this corruption that’s going on.”

DOUGLAS: “That even in your bad times you can still laugh, cry, dance.”

NASH: “What I want people to get from this is change. To learn how to change and learn how to forgive and learn how to come together as a community and just, like their worth.”

SOTELO: “And to be strong. To stand up for what’s right.”

ARZATE: “And it might sound weird, but I feel like they should feel a certain level of uncomfort because that means that they’re going to look at themselves while seeing the musical. Maybe they’ll go ‘I’m uncomfortable because I do that’ or ‘I have that prejudice’ or ‘I feel that certain way,’ so if they come out and they feel uncomfortable and then at the end they’re like, ‘Wow. There’s that hope for change.’ Hopefully that like…”

DOUGLAS: “… It inspires them to do better.”

ARZATE: “Like, you can do it.”

SOTELO: “It’s kind of like a water droplet. One small move can domino-effect to something bigger.”


Taking attendance

Want to make middle school admissions more fair? Stop looking at this measure, parents say

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Middle school students write their names down at a high school fair in Brooklyn.

Parents across New York City have pushed for changes in the way selective middle schools pick their students, saying the process is unfair.

Now, a group of Manhattan parents has come up with a novel solution: Stop looking at students’ attendance records.

The parent council in District 2 — where about 70 percent of middle schools admit students based on their academic records — points to research showing that students from low-income families are far more likely to miss school. Those children are at a distinct disadvantage in the competition for the district’s top middle school seats, the council argues, even though factors beyond the control of any fourth-grader — especially family homelessness — often account for poor attendance and tardiness.

“This outsized focus on attendance disproportionately impacts students who don’t have secure housing and may not have secure healthcare, and that is troubling to me,” said Eric Goldberg, a member of the community education council in District 2, which includes stretches of Lower Manhattan and the Upper East Side. “There are many factors that should not impact a student’s educational opportunities — and the way the system is set up, it does.”

Eighteen of the district’s 24 middle schools are “screened,” meaning they rank applicants based on factors including test scores, grades, and interviews. Of those, all but one school also considers how often students were late or absent in fourth grade, according to the parent council.

Most of the schools assign points to each factor they consider. Some give absences 10 times more weight than science or social studies grades, the council found, while others penalize students for even a single absence or instance of tardiness.

Disadvantaged students are especially likely to miss school.

A recent report by the city’s Independent Budget Office found that homeless students are more likely than other students to be chronically absent — typically defined as missing about 10 percent of the school year.

Schools with the highest chronic absenteeism are in communities in “deep poverty,” which have the highest rates of unemployment and family involvement with the child-welfare system, according to a 2014 report by the New School at the Center for New York City Affairs.

“We can use chronic absenteeism as a good guess of all the other things kids are dealing with,” said Nicole Mader, a senior research fellow at the New School and a co-author of the report. “If these middle schools are using absenteeism to weed kids out, that means they’re going to automatically weed out those kids who have the most barriers to academic success already.”

The attendance requirement can put pressure on any family, regardless of their financial status or housing situation.

Banghee Chi, a parent of two children in District 2, said she sometimes sent her younger daughter to school with a fever when she was in fourth grade rather than have her marked absent.

Her daughter would show up to class only to be sent to the school’s health clinic — which would call Chi to pick her up. Chi was thinking ahead to middle school, when a missed day of class could hurt her chances of getting into the most sought-after schools.

“It was something I was really conscious and aware of during my child’s fourth-grade year,” she said. “I think it’s unfair.”

The education council’s resolution, which will be put to vote in December, is nonbinding because middle schools set their own admissions criteria. But a show of support from parents could lead to action from the education department, which has been prodded by integration advocates to make other changes in high school and middle school admissions.

This summer, the department announced it would end the practice of “revealed rankings,” which allowed middle schools to select only those students who listed them first or second on their applications. The city is also appointing a committee of parents, educators, and community leaders in Brooklyn’s District 15 to come up with a proposal for making that district’s middle school applications process more fair.

“We’re collaborating with communities across the city to make school admissions more equitable and inclusive, including in District 2,” said department spokesman Will Mantell in an email. The department looks forward “to further conversations about this resolution and other efforts to improve middle school admissions in District 2.”