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Week of September 15, 2003

Arkansas To Grade Kids On Obesity
Foes cite worry about self-esteem

By JUDITH GRAHAM, Tribune national correspondent, September 15, 2003

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. - The state of Arkansas is tackling the rising problem of childhood obesity by testing all 447,000 of its schoolchildren in an ambitious program that has some parents up in arms and some educators warning of logistical problems.

Arkansas' program is the nation's first comprehensive statewide effort to identify severely overweight children and teens, and to raise parents' awareness that their children's lifestyles may need to change.

As such, it is on the leading edge of emerging state efforts to combat childhood obesity--a new policy arena that puts government in the delicate position of trying to protect public health while trying not to offend people whose kids' self-image is on the line.

Arkansas' effort begins this school year with a program to calculate each schoolchild's "body mass index"--an indicator of body fat based on height and weight, adjusted for age and sex. Results will be sent to parents next spring, along with educational materials about health risks, in the form of health report cards.

In the past several years, school districts in Pennsylvania, Florida, Massachusetts, Michigan and South Dakota have initiated limited programs to send out similar report cards--dubbed "fat letters" by critics--with mixed results. The reports also call parents' attention to pupils and students who are severely underweight.

Some consider health report cards an important response to a nationwide epidemic of childhood obesity, likening them to past efforts to fight polio by targeting children in school. In the past two decades, childhood obesity rates have more than doubled in the United States as kids exercise less, eat unhealthy foods and consume larger portions.

Others consider such reports a misguided approach that could expose children and teens to taunting or induce them to try dangerous diets while straining schools' stretched resources.

"Call this what you want, it's going to be a form of labeling kids," said Nancy Rousseau, principal of Little Rock's Central High School. "To me, it's not the answer."

In middle school, where children are exposed to intense peer pressure, "it's almost inevitable that they'll compare scores and teasing will occur," said Daniel Whitehorn, principal of Pulaski Heights Middle School in Little Rock, and the impact on overweight kids' self-esteem could be "devastating."

School nurses already are overloaded with work, and many districts don't have sufficiently sensitive equipment to take accurate weight and height measurements, said Margo Bushmiaer, coordinator of health services for the Little Rock School District.

To Mary Katherine Smith, a senior at Central High, "It's not the school's business. You go to school to get an education, not to learn whether you're fat or not. I know I'm probably overweight, and I don't need a report card to tell me."

Lawmaker weighs in

Arkansas is "certainly not out to embarrass anyone: We all know it's a tough thing being a child who is overweight," said state House Speaker Herschel Cleveland, a Democrat who is a prime mover behind the law. "But we have to start somewhere and try to protect children."

According to statistics he and experts cite, one in four Arkansas high school students is overweight; almost 9 percent of children 5 and younger in the state are obese. Rates of Type 2 diabetes in children--once rare in any population but adults--have soared 800 percent in the state in the past decade.

Medical problems associated with obesity include hypertension, diabetes and lung problems in children; for adults, those conditions are joined by heart disease and stroke.

The hope is that getting body-mass index scores will nudge some parents out of denial and encourage them to make simple changes such as buying Diet Coke instead of Coke, said Dr. Joe Thompson, a pediatrician and one of the architects of the state's program. Parents also will be advised to seek medical attention for their children, if warranted.

George Ziolkowski, director of pupil services for the East Penn School District just outside Allentown, Pa., said a similar program there had a rocky start two years ago--with Ziolkowski denounced as an "obesity Nazi"--but it has since succeeded in making childhood obesity a key community concern.

Research indicates health report cards might achieve at least some of Arkansas' objectives.

When parents in Cambridge, Mass., received reports on their children's weight, they were more likely to acknowledge problems, schedule physical activities and plan to call a medical professional, according to an August report in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.

But lifestyles are hard to change, and tips on daily healthy living didn't appear to induce Cambridge parents to alter family eating or television-watching habits, the research found. Also unclear was whether the information eventually helped children and teens better control their weight.

Some experts on childhood obesity warn that health report cards can backfire if parents start nagging children about eating or put them on diets.

"You're setting kids up to feel bad about how they are," and that could aggravate, not alleviate, weight problems, said Dr. Nancy Krebs, chairwoman of the American Academy of Pediatrics' Committee on Nutrition and an associate professor of medicine at the University of Colorado.

According to research, trying to put children and teens on diets or control what they eat can "create disordered eating," she said. Schools should focus on nutrition and physical education, the nutritional content of school lunches, and what's sold in vending machines instead of weight-related measurements, Krebs said.

The pediatrics academy last month issued its first policy statement on childhood obesity, calling for pediatricians to measure youngsters' body mass yearly. Physicians are better prepared than schools to "interpret this information thoughtfully to parents," Krebs said.

Working with doctors

Arkansas officials plan to work closely with physicians' groups during the next six months to prepare them for a slew of calls when health report cards arrive in the mail next spring.

"We want to make sure they know this is a major problem, you can do something, and it's time to step up to the plate," said Thompson, the pediatrician helping the state develop the program.

Will the reports make some people mad? Sure, said Grant Ballard, a Central High senior, "but maybe it'll take getting people mad to motivate them. If you don't get people involved with [this issue] now, the state's going to pay for all these medical problems down the line. This might not be the full solution, but it's a step in the right direction."

Linda Newborn, a parent of four children, isn't so sure.

"This is going to just bubble up to the top all the things middle school girls struggle with: who weighs what, who looks like what, who is skinnier than whom," said Newborn, whose 13-year-old daughter attends Pulaski Heights Middle School.

There are other steps schools should take, said Kristen Dugan, another senior at Central High: Make sure the lettuce in salad bars isn't brown, add nutrition education to health classes, which now focus almost exclusively on sex and substance abuse, and require more physical-education classes. Sixty-nine percent of Arkansas children don't participate in physical-education at school.

All this, it turns out, is also included in the scope of Arkansas' plan. During the next year, a new 15-member Arkansas child health advisory committee is to undertake a comprehensive review of school lunch programs, nutrition education, physical education and vending machine contracts--all to determine whether schools are promoting healthy lifestyles.

Within another year, the Arkansas advisory panel is to recommend statewide school standards for nutrition and physical activity; it also may formulate a statewide policy on vending machines in middle and high schools.

This fall, vending machines were banned in Arkansas elementary schools under the new childhood obesity law, adding the Natural State to a list of areas that exclude sales of soda pop and candy in schools, including New York and Los Angeles.


Lovington Schools To Explore Consolidation

By KRISTA LEWIN, Herald & Review Staff Writer

SULLIVAN - School boards in Sullivan and Lovington are preparing to study the feasibility of consolidating the two districts.

The venture is still in its infancy, Terry Pearcy, Sullivan superintendent, said. There is no obligation from either school district.

"We are looking to see what the fit is and whether it is feasible to go forth," Ralph Reed, Lovington school superintendent, said.

The study will provide numbers dealing with transportation, facilities, curriculum, enrollment and staffing. It also explores demographics and extracurricular activities. The results of the study should be completed in two to three months.

Because the study is state-funded, Pearcy said, it is a win-win situation for both school districts to explore the possibility of consolidation.

The two school districts already share some programs, including an auto mechanics class, a cooperative soccer team and agriculture classes.

The first factor that has to be established is a willingness to cooperate, Pearcy said. The other is information to see if the time is economically right for both districts.

Generally, the study is performed by consultants with an education background, such as retired school superintendents or university professors who have an understanding of school district finances, Pearcy said.

Last year, a similar study looked at the possibility of reorganizing the Arthur and Lovington districts. Reed said the research was positive except when it came to taxes. If the two districts consolidated, Arthur's taxes could have increased while taxes in Lovington would have decreased.


Quinn Suggests More School Tax For Rich, Refunds For Poor

By RACHEL IZZO, NewsTribune, Friday, September 12, 2003

Thursday night Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn introduced a new proposed Senate resolution that would amend the state’s constitution and create money for school districts while sending a refund check to property owners.

Quinn presented his ideas at about 8 p.m. to the Starved Rock Division of the Illinois Association of School Boards at the 2003 Fall Dinner Meeting in La Salle: The Role and Future of the Regional offices of Education.

He said Senate Joint Resolution 20 would require people who make more than $250,000 a year to pay 6 percent in taxes and that money would be put into a trust fund that couldn’t be touched by legislators in Springfield.

The money would then be divided, and half of it would go to school districts while the other half would go to refunding taxpayers, which Quinn compared to the Alaskan Oil Royalty Fund that gives residents of the state a $200-$400 check each year.

“I believe very much in education,” Quinn said. “My youngest brother won the Golden Apple Award a couple years ago,” he said. “He is a teacher and has been a teacher ever since he got out of college, When I went to my brother’s awards ceremony they had a speaker there that said ‘There are two forces in life. On the one side there are the movers and the shakers, on the other side there are those that are moved and shaken and the key difference between them is education.’ I think that has really got to be our viewpoint in Illinois now and forever.

“There’s something wrong when 80 percent of the school districts in Illinois are in deficit. That’s not a healthy situation.”

Quinn said the amount that goes toward school districts would be based on the number of students. This raised questions about giving the most money to the larger districts, like in the suburbs of Chicago, where they are doing OK budget-wise, while the smaller districts, for example the Manlius (Bureau Valley) district, would see less money. The educators that were in attendance also were worried about having school districts’ money taken away from the state budget because legislators will know the schools would receive money from the resolutions trust fund.

“This may not be perfect, but it’s a lot better than what we’ve had for the past 33 years,” Quinn said. “That (having money taken away) is a concern at all times, but I think it is going to be hard for legislators to take away current funding and cut back on that. If you’re trying to figure out a way to get to heaven, maybe if we all band together we can get there.”

On Oct. 3, legislators will begin a campaign to put the resolution to a test March and the issue could then be voted on during the November 2004 elections, Quinn said. However, in order to get this issue on the ballot 60 percent of the legislators would have to vote for it. To have it be added as an amendment to the constitution, 60 percent of voters also would have to support it.

“I think it has some merit,” said La Salle County Regional superintendent William Novotney about the lieutenant governor’s proposed resolution. “Anytime you can go ahead and set aside funds for education that is a good thing. I agree with some of the things he said. The grassroots way is the best way to operate education. Education is a community affair and should be operated by the people in the community.”

Novotney also spoke during the meeting about the issues he, and other regional superintendents around the state, are having about the Regional Offices of Education. However, Quinn did not stay to hear Novotney speak on the issues.

In April, Gov. Rod Blagojevich had eliminated the normal $22 million in operating costs for the regional offices of education from his proposed state budget. In early June state legislators voted to restore about $17 million into the budget for the ROEs. However, the La Salle regional office has only received $50,000 thus far.

“We have received only one-fourth of the money we were promised we were going to get,” he said.

Novotney estimated the money would last another month and he will look toward grants and community help for funding.

“Things have been promised and they have not been given.”

The funding provides the ROEs salaries for regional superintendents, support services such as continuing education for teachers, answers to legal questions, registration and renewal of teachers’ certificates and staff development.

He said that by May 2005 representatives from the 46 ROEs will have to have reduced the number of offices to 22. The first meeting is scheduled next week.

“When you get to an office that has more counties, it’s going to be more difficult to spread your services,” he said.

Novotney said he has no idea how they will begin splitting up the areas, or what the criteria will be for determining the boundries.

The new 22 regions will come up for vote during the 2007 election, however, if a regional superintendent retires before that time the region will be expected to immediately consolidate with a nearby region.


District 211 boosts revenue in deal with U.S. Cellular

By Chad Brooks, Daily Herald Staff Writer, September 12, 2003

Facing a nearly $29 million budget deficit, members of the Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211 board of education took a small step Thursday toward increasing their revenue for the next 20 years.

The district agreed to a lease agreement with U.S. Cellular, a wireless telecommunications corporation, for the company to install and maintain a cellular antenna at Hoffman Estates High School.

The antenna will be placed on the southeast light standard at the school.

In return for letting U.S. Cellular use space on the light standard the district will be paid $144,000 over the next twenty years. The payment comes to about $600 a month.

"This is one of those partnerships between a business corporation and the district that is a win-win situation for both of us," said Robert Malito, District 211 superintendent.

This is not the first time the district has turned to a wireless company for revenue.

As a way to pay for the installation of lights at the Hoffman Estates High School stadium, the district entered into an agreement with Sprint PCS in 2001.

At that time a deal was worked out that if Sprint put up the lights they could use one of the poles to house their cellular antennas.

Sprint installed nine cellular antennas on the southwest light pole that provide coverage to parts of Schaumburg and Hoffman Estates. Part of the agreement also called for Sprint to pay all the electricity costs for the light standards.

District officials said U.S. Cellular will now help Sprint pay for the costs of electricity to run the lights.

When asked by board members if more antenna space could be sold, Malito said that is a possibility in the future.

"They use water towers, light fixtures, so I would think they might be interested in more District 211 schools," Malito said.

U.S. Cellular has already received the necessary approval from the village of Hoffman Estates for this installation.


Meditation in schools urged by parents' group

BY CATHLEEN FALSANI, Religion Reporter, Sun Times, September 12, 2003

A group of parents who practice Transcendental Meditation wants to set up programs to teach students and teachers in Chicago area schools the deep relaxation technique created by 1960s guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

The Committee to Promote TM in Schools is urging local public and private-school educators to consider adding 20 minutes of daily Transcendental Meditation to their curriculums, saying the technique reduces stress, rejuvenates the body and mind, and improves academic performance.

The basic Transcendental Meditation technique, which the maharishi based on ancient Eastern meditation principles, involves sitting quietly for 20 minutes -- 10 in the morning and 10 in the afternoon -- and silently repeating a one-syllable Sanskrit mantra. Practitioners say it provides deep rest, more focused concentration, and a sense of bliss. An estimated 5 million people worldwide practice TM.

It takes only a few days to learn the technique, followed by periodic follow-up sessions to "fine tune," said Tricia Malkinson, director of Evanston's Transcendental Meditation Center.

Rabbi Jonathan Magidovitch of B'Nai Torah synagogue in Highland Park has practiced TM for 29 years. His sons Charlie, 12, and Evan, 11, learned to meditate about three years ago.

"What I've seen is [they are] calmer about approaching new situations, and that includes less anxiety about peer relations, and more willingness to go their own way, gently," said Magidovitch, who is among the parents lobbying for meditation programming in local schools.

"They're more comfortable about who they are. They're able to do more work in less time . . . and their standardized test scores have gone up," he said.

So far, Transcendental Meditation programs have been incorporated into three schools in Iowa, Washington, D.C., and Michigan. About 160 middle school students at the Nataki Talibah Schoolhouse, a charter school in Detroit, practice the meditation technique twice daily.

It usually costs about $2,500 per person to learn the meditation technique, Malkinson said, adding that the Chicago area parents group would help interested schools find underwriters to cover the cost. The $300,000 program at Nataki Talibah Schoolhouse was funded in part by donations from General Motors and DaimlerChrysler.

The University of Michigan's Complementary & Alternative Medicine Research Center is studying the Nataki Talibah students. Preliminary findings suggest that the students were happier, had higher self-esteem, handled stress better, and got along better with fellow students than non-meditators.

While practitioners say Transcendental Meditation is a relaxation technique -- practiced by people of all religions and none -- and not a religion or a philosophy, some education watchdogs say it has no business in schools, especially not in public education systems.

"Whether they call it a religion or not, it's advancing a religious philosophical outlook," said Peter LaBarbera, executive director of the Illinois Family Institute. "If the laws say schools can't favor one religion over another, how can they teach Transcendental Meditation and not teach the gospel of Christianity?"

Principal George Rutherford introduced Transcendental Meditation to 5th and 6th graders at the Fletcher-Johnson Public School in one of the highest-crime areas in Washington, D.C., in 1993. Several hundred students and teachers learned the meditation technique there between 1993 and 1998.

"We called it our stress-management program," Rutherford said. "Behavioral problems went down and attendance went up."


Kennedy pledges to defeat school voucher bill

By Lolita C. Baldor, The Associated Press, Friday, September 12, 2003

WASHINGTON - Sen. Edward Kennedy plans to do everything he can to defeat the proposed use of school vouchers in the nation's capital, his spokesman said Thursday.
Voucher supporters are trying to change his mind and will run a television ad in his home state of Massachusetts next week questioning the Democrat's commitment to civil rights.

Kennedy's spokesman, Jim Manley, said that would not stop the senator from trying to block legislation in the Senate legislation that would give private school vouchers to students in the District of Columbia. Kennedy has not ruled out any legislative tactic, including a filibuster, Manley said.

The measure would provide $13 million so that thousands of low-income students could go to private schools and receive up to $7,500 to defray the costs. A similar bill passed in the House by one vote, but opponents believe they can stall the bill in the Senate.

Manley said Kennedy plans to offer an amendment to drop the voucher program from the bill and put the money into improving the city's public schools.

The executive director of D.C. Parents for School Choice, the group behind the new ad, said, "We're frustrated to hear he is so adamantly opposed to this. The Kennedys were always very supportive of fairness and of people getting what they deserve."

The ad shows scenes from the civil rights movement in the South. Virginia Walden-Ford, the executive director, talks in the voice-over about growing up with segregation and knowing that the late Sen. Robert Kennedy fought for equal rights.

"Senator Kennedy, your brothers fought for us," she says in the ad. "Why do you fight against us?"

Kennedy has said the voucher plan will take money from public schools and give it to private schools that do not have to meet as many testing and accountability requirements.

The appropriations bill that includes the voucher plan could come up in the Senate next week.


Is school a struggle? Some blame vision problems

By Rebecca Cook, Associated Press, 9/15/03

Adam Schunke used to think he was just dumb.

Schoolwork that came easily to his friends was a monumental struggle for the Seattle 15-year-old. He loved making up creative stories in his head, but he hated reading and writing.

His mother, Wilma Schunke, didn't know what to do with him. Three years of intensive tutoring didn't seem to help. Adam just wasn't getting it, and she started to feel that she was the one failing.

Schunke didn't get her hopes up when a friend recommended an optometrist who specialized in something called vision development. With glasses, which he had worn since the age of 5, Adam's eyesight was 20-20. Surely his eyes couldn't be the problem, Schunke thought.

But she was desperate enough to try anything, so she made an appointment.

The optometrist led Adam through a series of simple tests designed to tell whether his eyes were tracking and working together properly. She held up a finger and asked Adam to follow it with his eyes. As her finger passed in front of Adam's nose, Wilma Schunke saw her son's eyes quiver, something she had never seen before.

Clearly, something was wrong with his vision.

She started to cry.

"Why couldn't someone have done this before?" she wondered. "It was such a relief. A mother's heart hurts when your kid does not do well."

Adam was diagnosed as having problems with eye movement (ocular motility) and eye teaming (binocularity). Daily vision therapy exercises - like physical therapy for eyes - and regular optometrist visits changed his life. He doubled his reading level, increased his confidence in school and dreams of becoming a zoologist or marine biologist.

"I feel smarter," said Adam, now 16 and in 10th grade. "I don't feel so down on myself anymore."

An estimated 10 million children in the United States suffer from problems with their vision, ranging from simple nearsightedness to more complex problems of the type that plagued Adam.

Good vision, as the Schunkes learned, requires more than good eyesight. Kids who can see the blackboard perfectly might still have vision problems that make it impossible for them to read. And simple eye tests in school won't catch many problems.

In Adam's case, when he tried to read, his eye would skip around constantly. He'd start on one line and end up reading a line several paragraphs down the page. Nothing made sense.

His vision therapy consisted of a series of computer exercises that he did for about 20 minutes five days a week. One program was a picture of an arrow inside a box. Adam had to click on the location of the arrow. At first, Wilma Schunke said, she thought the exercise looked too easy. Then she saw that Adam was clicking way outside of the box - that's where he saw the arrow. Over time, the exercises reshaped his vision so he could locate the arrow in the box and follow words on a page.

Optometrists can become board-certified in vision development after three years of practice, a course of specialized study, a written exam and an oral interview by the College of Optometrists in Vision Development. These specialists say vision development problems are often misdiagnosed as attention deficit disorder. Many of the symptoms are the same, and the clues of vision problems are easy to miss.

"The problems we're talking about are more subtle, and more difficult to detect," said Stephen Miller, executive director of the College of Optometrists in Vision Development.

Not everyone in the eye care community is convinced of the wonders of vision therapy. The American Academy of Ophthalmology, representing eye specialists with medical degrees, has issued a position paper saying, "Visual problems are rarely responsible for learning difficulties." The academy's doctors believe vision therapy and eye exercises can correct some eye problems, but generally won't help kids with learning disabilities.

"We feel that medically there is not good evidence that a learning disability is caused by an eye problem," said Dr. Stuart Dankner, a pediatric ophthalmologist and a spokesman for the academy.

The naysayers can't convince parents like Wilma Schunke, who has turned into something of a vision therapy evangelist after seeing what the treatment did for her son.

"The change in him was so phenomenal," she said. She now volunteers with a group called PAVE, Parents Active for Vision Education, and has spoken to teacher and parent groups about her son's story.

Optometrist Nancy Torgerson treated Adam Schunke and has been working as a vision therapist for 23 years. She said both the research and the dramatic turnaround of patients like Adam convince her that it works.

"That's what I see daily, and I don't want those kids missed and thinking they're dumb," Torgerson said. "I hope we can work together" with ophthalmologists, she added: "I hope we can help show them there is more to vision than eyesight."


Group lists healthiest, worst food in schools

Associated Press, September 16, 2003

WASHINGTON -- Campaigning to replace sodas, candy bars and sugary juices with fruit and granola bars in school vending machines, an advocacy group on Monday listed what it says are among the healthiest--and worst--snacks for children.

Among the worst, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, are Coca-Cola and Pepsi sodas, Hostess snack cakes, Kit Kat Big Kat candy bars, Chips Ahoy! and Oreo cookies and Starburst Fruit Chews. Chocolate and other flavors of whole milk also made the list because they are high in saturated fat, the center said.

Margo Wootan, the center's nutrition director, said schools should replace them with items such as unsweetened applesauce, Nestle Nesquik fat-free chocolate milk, other low-fat and fat-free milk, bottled water, 100 percent orange juice, traditional Chex Mix, Nature Valley crunchy granola bars and raisins.

With 15 percent of children age 6 to 19 overweight, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Wootan said children should be eating less sweet and fatty food. A 20-ounce bottle of cola alone contains 250 calories, she said.

A healthier choice would be a 20-ounce bottle of 100-percent orange juice, she said. But the group's table acknowledged that the orange juice has 25 more calories than Coke.

The food industry says there is room in everyone's diet for all foods, including sweets.

"There are no good foods and bad foods," said Stephanie Childs, a spokeswoman for the Grocery Manufacturers of America.

The advocacy group has called for Congress to give the Agriculture Department authority to restrict food sold in school vending machines and in school cafeterias.

The food industry opposes the idea.



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