First Person

P.E. teachers learning to link nutrition, fitness, teen angst

Susan Bertelsen, professor of human performance and sports at Metro State College of Denver, is a proponent of P.E. teachers inserting nutrition education into their curriculum.

P.E. teachers already do a lot to alleviate the obesity epidemic plaguing American youngsters, but in all the guidelines and recommendations about how schools can improve physical activity and health, Susan Bertelsen discovered what she sees as a  gaping hole: nutrition education.

Colorado law doesn’t require it, virtually no school district requires it, and when it is included in a standard one-semester Health Education class, it’s likely to get no more than two weeks’ of attention, if any, says Bertelsen, professor of human performance and sports at Metropolitan State College of Denver.

Yet nutrition education is vital to physical fitness, and Bertelsen believes middle and high school P.E. teachers are perfectly positioned to add some nutrition education into their classes in ways that make the subject interesting and relevant to students.

“Do you agree self-confidence and self-esteem are correlated to body image? Do you think teens care about how they look?” she asked at a recent gathering of P.E. teachers from around the state. “Would you like to empower them to make smart choices that increase their self-esteem?”

“We can’t do everything,” she said. “But we can do something. Adolescents want ownership. They want to make their own decisions. Knowing that nutrition is the main culprit in weight gain or weight loss, how vital is it that we include it in the curriculum? Physical activity is only one piece of the pie.”

Not all PE teachers are trained in nutrition

Bertelsen recognizes that not all physical education teachers feel competent to teach in-depth nutrition classes. But to help them, she has devised a step-by-step plan to implement nutrition education into a physical education class. If teachers can carve out 20 minutes of time, one day a week, they can draw teens into important discussions about caloric needs, reading labels, balanced diets, dangers of fast foods, weight management, and lifelong eating disciplines.

“I don’t want to take away activity time, but if I were teaching high school again, I would definitely try to do this,” Bertelsen said. “These are things that resonate with teenagers. Yes, they should start learning these things when they’re younger, and there’s a lot of good nutrition education curricula out there. But what do they remember that they learned in third grade? By high school, they need to hear these things again.”

A step-by-step guide

Bertelsen says the first step for a P.E. teacher interested in adding nutrition education into the class is to talk to the school’s health teacher. In some schools, the P.E. teacher IS the health teacher, but not always. Find out how much nutrition is being taught in the health course, then ask about collaborating on some nutrition and physical activity topics.

Mypyramid.gov is an excellent online resource for teaching about the food pyramid.

Step Two is compiling resources. Find five to seven legitimate resources that provide teachers with guidance on making complex topics simple. Supplement that with two or three places – either online or in journals – where students can log their food intake and physical activity levels.

Next, develop a list of the top seven or eight nutrition-related topics that you think are most important for students to know. Reading food labels? Assessing the legitimacy of weight loss or dietary supplement products? Understanding the food pyramid? Once you’ve determined the topics to study, figure out ways to make those topics interactive. Find projects the students can do to reinforce these lessons.

Then develop a timeline. Figure out where you could find 20 minutes a week. “If you’re on block days, and you’ve got 90 minutes, are your students active all 90 minutes? Probably not,” Bertelsen said. “You can make good use of that time, and not cut into their physical activity time.”

Determine how much time each topic needs, then create a series of brief lesson plans that involve in-class discussion and out-of-class assignments.

Bertelsen has come up with a suggested sequence of topics and possible activities, but she emphasizes that others may prefer different topics, different sequences and different activities. Above all, the topics should address things happening in the students’ lives.

“I still think PE ought to be a requirement for seniors rather than freshmen, because as seniors they’re more ready to accept it as a responsibility for a lifetime,” Bertelsen said. “Connect with them about nutrition being what makes them look good and feel good.”

Nutrition resources online

Susan Bertelsen has compiled an annotated list of trusted and reliable online resources where teachers can turn to get information as well as ideas for classroom assignments and hands-on student projects related to nutrition. Among them:

Food and Nutrition Information Center, USDA – This is the official information center website of the Agricultural Network from the Agricultural Research Service that deals with food and nutrition. FNIC is a broad-based site that is a good jumping-off point for other sources of nutrition information. The Center contains food and human nutrition materials such as books, journals and audiovisuals encompassing a wide range of topics.

USDA Food, Nutrition and Consumer Service – This service was established to ensure access to nutritious and healthful diets for all Americans. This unit administers the 15 food assistance programs of the USDA.

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations – Economic and Social Department – Highlights include methods by which the Food and Nutrition Division is working toward improving nutritional status worldwide and ensuring the quality and safety of the food supply. Included are links to resources on food quality, food safety, food fortification and nutrition programs.

Center for Science in the Public Interest – This nonprofit education and advocacy organization is devoted to improving the safety and nutritional quality of the food supply. Links are provided to information for youth, and reports about specific nutrition issues. A unique feature is access to the Nutrition Action Healthletter, an online publication.

Yahoo! – Health: Nutrition – A broad-based site that is useful as a starting point for surfers who are not yet focused on a specific nutrition topic or issue. This site can serve as a good resource for the beginning browser.

NutritionData – Nutrition Facts Calorie Counter – This site provides facts, in a simplified manner, about nutritional analyses for foods and recipes. It includes a searchable database by food name and information on foods from fast food restaurants.

Nutrient Data Laboratory – Food Composition Data – The place to look for food composition data provided by the Agricultural Research Service. Includes a search tool that enables the user to look up the nutrient content of more than 5,600 foods.

Nutrition.gov – An authoritative gateway to reliable information on nutrition, healthy eating, physical activity and food safety for consumers, educators and health professionals.

National Academies Press: Food and Nutrition Collection – This link provides access to the many free online reports provided by the National Academies in the subject areas of food and nutrition.

SPARK (Sports, Play and Active Recreation for Kids) – Physical Education and Wellness program provides some nutrition curriculum ideas and resources. Focuses mainly on school health awareness and behavior change.

Dietetics Online – Billed as the networking organization of nutrition and dietetic professionals, this site links to specialized search engines, a marketplace for related products and services, summaries of professional meetings and exhibitions and to computer and software information.

American Dietetic Association – The home page of this organization provides member service, nutrition resources, FAQs, and a “hot topics” link.

MayoClinic.com – A searchable site including such information as current health news, answers to queries from Mayo specialists, access to specific disease centers and health with other healthy lifestyle planning.

FruitsandVeggies Matter.gov – A site with tips and recipes, including easy ways to add more fruits and vegetables into daily dating patterns.

Mypyramid.gov – The new USDA food pyramid replaces “one size fits all” with a customizable eating plan.

First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention. 

First Person

With roots in Cuba and Spain, Newark student came to America to ‘shine bright’

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Layla Gonzalez

This is my story of how we came to America and why.

I am from Mallorca, Spain. I am also from Cuba, because of my dad. My dad is from Cuba and my grandmother, grandfather, uncle, aunt, and so on. That is what makes our family special — we are different.

We came to America when my sister and I were little girls. My sister was three and I was one.

The first reason why we came here to America was for a better life. My parents wanted to raise us in a better place. We also came for better jobs and better pay so we can keep this family together.

We also came here to have more opportunities — they do call this country the “Land Of Opportunities.” We came to make our dreams come true.

In addition, my family and I came to America for adventure. We came to discover new things, to be ourselves, and to be free.

Moreover, we also came here to learn new things like English. When we came here we didn’t know any English at all. It was really hard to learn a language that we didn’t know, but we learned.

Thank God that my sister and I learned quickly so we can go to school. I had a lot of fun learning and throughout the years we do learn something new each day. My sister and I got smarter and smarter and we made our family proud.

When my sister Amira and I first walked into Hawkins Street School I had the feeling that we were going to be well taught.

We have always been taught by the best even when we don’t realize. Like in the times when we think we are in trouble because our parents are mad. Well we are not in trouble, they are just trying to teach us something so that we don’t make the same mistake.

And that is why we are here to learn something new each day.

Sometimes I feel like I belong here and that I will be alright. Because this is the land where you can feel free to trust your first instinct and to be who you want to be and smile bright and look up and say, “Thank you.”

As you can see, this is why we came to America and why we can shine bright.

Layla Gonzalez is a fourth-grader at Hawkins Street School. This essay is adapted from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.