Read more of The Shape We're InCHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In 2005, almost four out of 10 kids in the Kearney, Neb., schools were obese or overweight. "It was time to do something about it," said Cari Franzen, Kearney Schools wellness coordinator.
Five years later, Kearney had chopped the obesity rate of their grade school kids by a stunning 13 percent. Eighty six kids dropped from obese or overweight to normal.
Franzen couldn't believe it when she first saw the numbers. "I knew we'd gotten the students more active, but when I saw those BMI numbers, it was like wow!"
"We aimed to cut the obesity rate by 2 percent," she said. "We thought 2 percent would be a challenge, because, nationwide, childhood obesity is rising or staying the same. Nobody is lowering it. We never dreamed of 13."
No other school system has done that, said Ginny Ehrlich, CEO of the Alliance for a Healthier Generation. "What Kearney has done is unique and a great example for the rest of the country," she said.
Two Kearney grade schools pulled off especially dramatic drops. Low-income Emerson Elementary started with 44.8 percent of students obese or overweight and ended with 35.2 percent. A second school dropped from 36.5 percent to 26.4 percent, a 27.7 percent drop.
Mary Weikle's eyes widened when she heard the Kearney numbers. "How'd they do that?" she said.
Weikle is point person for West Virginia state Schools Superintendent Jorea Marple's new campaign to get students moving. "West Virginia is at the beginning stages of what they did," Weikle said. "We can learn from what they did."
A smaller state such as West Virginia definitely could tackle a program like Kearney's, said Kate Heelen, professor of exercise science at the University of Nebraska-Kearney. "It's not rocket science. It's really just making smarter choices. But in a smaller state, you have more chance of getting buy-in."
How'd they do that?
"We basically rethought the school day to find ways to get the kids moving," Franzen said.
First, they applied for and got a $900,000 federal Physical Education Program grant. But $900,000 is not a lot of money to change a school system, especially divided into three years.
So they teamed up with the education and exercise science staff at Nebraska-Kearney, looking for the nation's best, proven-to-work strategies. "They helped us plan ways to get the most bang out of the bucks." Here's what they did:
They did not make schools participate, but all eventually did. "We got buy-in," Franzen said. "That's harder than ordering people to participate, but it makes you more successful. We started with the most willing schools. Then other schools wanted to do it too."
Emerson School joined immediately, fourth-grade teacher Chris Weis said. "Once we heard how bad our children's numbers were, the teachers all said, 'What can we do differently to address this?'"
"The kids have been so open and willing to participate," she said. "They grasp onto what you give them. It's a matter of exposing them to some different lifestyle choices."
Two grade schools that increased their BMI started late, Franzen said. The other seven schools lowered their BMI.
The grant is running out, but the program does not depend on it, she said. "We planned it to be sustainable." Otherwise, she said, the system could gain the weight back, like a person who goes off a diet.
The drop in BMI numbers is getting attention, Franzen said, but "I think the most important thing is, we've established a culture of physical fitness in our district. We've got a lot of fit kids who have formed healthy habits that will last a lifetime."
Eighty six children dropped from the obese or overweight category to healthy weight.
"They are growing in height, so of course, they gained weight," Franzen said. "But -- and this is an important point -- they didn't gain as much. They gained five pounds instead of 15.
"So the BMI didn't drop because children lost weight. It dropped because they did not gain as much unnecessary weight."
Could W.Va. counties do it?