It seems like we are swimming in data.
The sun is shining and the lifeguard tower is buzzing with activity. (I wonder sometimes if they are really keeping their eyes on the water.) I wonder who is up there at all. No matter, we have our fins… and we are swimming in a sea of data.
We swim with the tide and sometimes we push against it. But one thing for certain when you are swimming in data: there is no shortage of information. And no shortage of assessments that produce the data. It’s like an underwater upwell pouring volumes of new trends into the channel. Creating more waves. Faster currents. A nuanced flow. And of course, the occasional rip tide that threatens to pull you out beyond the comfortable landforms that tether us all to the beach; like this past week, when a rogue wave washed across and knocked us off our feet… just as we were looking comfortably in another direction.
California released the results of the 2009 Physical Fitness Tests that were administered last Spring to all of our 5th and 7th graders. In a nutshell… our kids tanked! We were in the bottom 10 in a district of 44 schools. Bottom 10 because only 14% of our 5th graders met the physical fitness benchmarks for all 6 (out of 6) exercises. 7th grade was not much stronger: 17% met all 6 benchmarks.
They were not asked to swim across the English Channel or benchpress their teacher’s Prius. They were not required to compete in the Rock and Roll Marathon. They simply had to meet the benchmarks on a prescribed set of exercises:
Sit and reach
Interval Run (Aerobic)
Body Mass Index
14% were able to do it. The very best school in the district managed to have 50% of their students meet the benchmarks. Statewide… it was only 34%.
So during our staff meeting last Friday we looked at the data as if it were accurate and reflective of our students’ state of fitness. We identified the tidal trends; made no excuses. We asked what is up.
“What is up? How is it that we are a charter school, with all the resources we need to serve our kids– a track, a fitness course, a PE program, competitive teams, and a director with a degree in Physical Education… and this is the result? What is up?!”
And we brainstormed the root causes just like we dig deep into the data on reading and writing and algebra and math and science and social studies. We looked at the trends. We looked at our 5th graders’ relative strength (aerobic) and weakness (flexibility!) and how it seemed to shift by 7th grade where their strength was sit-ups and weakness was the torso extension (weakness in the lower back is a bad harbinger for high school athletics!)
We concluded that these results stemmed from at least three conditions:
• First, we did not do a very good job of preparing our students (or teachers… or parents) for the 2009 Physical Fitness Test. It twas an afterthought conducted hastily in the Spring while everyone had their eye on the California Standards Test.
• Second, our students are not getting enough EXERCISE.
Many are sedentary couch potatoes who would rather play video games or watch television than go outside and exercise. Sometimes overprotective parents encourage them to stay indoors. And in some neighborhoods you can hardly blame them. Our school is bordered by trolly tracks a freeway and surface streets that race and crowd like freeways. There are shady motels, apartment complexes with high turnover and strange faces, sex offenders, street gangs, graffiti artists, and a lot of unsupervised kids of all ages. And there are limited places to exercise.
• Third, our students, in general, do not have healthy DIETS. They eat bags of red hot cheetos and takis the size of pillows. They drink Red Bull and sugary juice mixes and 64 ounce caffeinated sodas– they consume endless fast food and junk food offered in over-sized portions.
And in a community bearing now the full brunt of the nation’s sagging economy– the unemployment, the lack of health care, the work-three-jobs, the all nighters and grave yard shifts, the eat-to-survive and find-whatever-comfort-food-you-can— our children pay.
According to the National Association of Children’s Hospitals and Related Institutions (NACHRI):
“This is the first generation of children that will be sicker, and die younger, than their parents.”
At El Milagro, this got our attention. So we found some more data:
• 16 percent of children (over 9 million) 6-19 years old are overweight or obese — a number that has tripled since 1980.
• In addition to the 16 percent of children and teens ages 6 to 19 who were overweight in 1999-2002, another 15 percent were considered at risk of becoming overweight.
• Overweight adolescents have a 70 percent chance of becoming overweight or obese adults.
• Obesity-associated annual hospital costs for children and youth more than tripled over two decades, rising from $35 million in 1979-1981 to $127 million in 1997-1999.
• Nearly one-third of U.S. Children aged 4 to 19 eat fast food every day, resulting in approximately six extra pounds per year, per child. Fast food consumption has increased fivefold among children since 1970.
• Approximately 60 percent of obese children aged 5 to 10 years had at least one cardiovascular disease risk factor, such as elevated total cholesterol, triglycerides, insulin or blood pressure, and 25 percent had two or more risk factors.
• For children born in the United States in 2000, the lifetime risk of being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes at some point in their lives is estimated to be about 30 percent for boys and 40 percent for girls.
• According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Mexican-American children ages 6-11 were more likely to be overweight (22 percent) than non-Hispanic black children (20 percent) and non-Hispanic white children (14 percent).
• There are more than 8 million uninsured children in the United States.
Sometimes there are treasures that wash ashore from that sea of data. There is an idea or a thought or a new direction or inspiration or a movement or even the seeds of a revolution. Like this:
We realized our kids weren’t physically fit and that their lack of fitness was a result of poor NUTRITION and a lack of EXERCISE. And that, like many of the circumstances of their lives, much of it is environmental. It is a socio-economic phenomenon. It is for many parents a lack of knowledge, or time, or resources, or energy to encourage a healthier pattern.
And we haven’t helped. So starting in January we are no longer allowing bags of chips and sugary drinks and junk food snacks on our campus. We are taking the 160-calorie sport drinks out of the vending machines and replacing them with bottled water. We are prohibiting classroom parties that feature stacks of Von’s cupcakes and dixie cups filled with Mountain Dew.
Healthy snacks only. 100% frozen juice bars instead of popsicle rewards.
We will teach our students how to read nutrition labels. We will give them the skills to defend themselves against the conspiracy of junk food marketers that intentionally manipulate ingredients– more fat, more sugar, more salt, bigger portions– to lure them in.
And we will inspire our students to exercise. We will challenge them to be active at least :60 minutes a day. Academic progress is in large part a function of wellness. Kids who are fit and healthy and well nourished perform better than sedentary children whose eating habits are haphazard.
That’s what we learned this week from the sea of data. It was a seminal moment. A gift to our students that will no doubt take them some time to appreciate. To live healthy.
To Live Strong!