- WEIGHING IN: The school scales.
The results of the 2005-06 school year body mass index for Arkansas’s public schoolchildren, the third year of the program that assesses students’ body fat, showed no increase in obese or overweight students. In 2003, BMI testing found that 20.9 percent of students were obese. In 2005, the number was 20.4 percent.
(The BMI report uses the word “overweight” because the term “obese” doesn’t apply to children; overweight children are designated as “at risk of overweight.”)
That’s not much of a decrease, but, if the three years of data are a true representation of how well the state’s BMI requirement is working, the fact that there’s no percentage increase is good news, as Gov. Mike Huckabee and Arkansas Center for Health Improvement head Dr. Joe Thompson declared last week.
“We have stopped the runaway train,” the governor declared. “This is not the destination, this is the turning point.”
If we’ve stopped the runaway train, who’s putting on the brakes? It could be that mandates to schools to get rid of soda machines and make cafeteria food healthier are having a bigger impact than guidance from parents, to whom the BMI results go.
Only 71 percent of parents surveyed by the College of Public Health last year remembered getting the results, but most read them, and 67 percent of those who read them found them helpful.
Act 1220 of 2002 required the BMI measurements and the confidential report to parents, but included no funding. A grant from a foundation paid for the 2003-04 mail-out. If the Little Rock School District were to mail reports to parents, it would cost the district $14,000, Margo Bushmiaer, health services coordinator for the district, said. About half Little Rock’s schools pay to mail (the decision is left to schools).
Some schools, including Central High School, ask parents to call in for the results; others distribute them at parent-teacher conferences. A school nurse who measured two grades at Central last year said only 30 parents had called her for results. The other nurse was out sick, so no information was available for the other two grades.
In Pine Bluff, which is made up mostly of the most-high-risk children — African-Americans — BMI results are “put in parents’ hands,” high school nurse Barbara Collier said, which is preferable to mailing because so many kids in the district move and addresses are often wrong, and the postage cost was “astronomical,” she said. Pine Bluff also requires that parents come to school to pick up their report cards, and the BMI report is put in a sealed envelope and included.
Fayetteville also requires all parents to come to its Career Achievement Plan conference at school, and those that haven’t been given out at parent-teacher conferences are given out then.
The COPH, which is evaluating the BMI process with a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, got a 79 percent response rate from public school principals in its 2005 survey on the 2004-05 school year measurements. Of those, 70 percent said they were paying to mail the results home. Otherwise, they required parents to pick the reports up from school, at meetings or at their convenience, or sent them home with children.
In any case, parents haven’t been able find out their child’s BMI, measured in fall, until the end of the school year. It provides a picture of what was, not is.
ACHI plans to remedy that lag time starting in January by processing results as they come in and posting them immediately; school nurses, using passwords to access to the information, will be able to get results from the agency’s website.
“We believe it’s important that parents get that information” on their children, ACHI project director Joy Rockenbach said.
Rockenbach was pleasantly surprised at the number of surveys being mailed and parent response. She said she’d discussed the distribution of the BMI reports with ACHI head Thompson only the day before.
“That’s a good number that heartens me,” Rockenbach said about parent response. “That makes me feel better.” Rockenbach said ACHI had concerns in the first year of testing that parents would feel the agency was challenging their parenting skills.
A statistician at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock said the fact that participation is voluntary (parents may opt out) may somewhat skew the results, since those who refuse may be overweight, and the school nurse at Pine Bluff High School confirmed that, saying those who refuse are “usually the ones that need it.”
But Rockenbach said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regularly evaluates the BMI assessment process and was confident the .05 percent decrease was statistically sound, because of the huge number of students — 372,369 — included in the sample. CDC’s neutrality offers ACHI a “reality check” on the project, Rockenbach said.
A summary in the public health college’s evaluation was largely positive. “Adolescents did not report any changes in either eating or physical activity patterns. However, they did report changes in their patterns of purchasing from vending machines.”
Still, the COPH evaluation reported, “school personnel continue to question the value and necessity of BMI measurements and reports to parents.”