MONTEBELLO — When all the information was analyzed, assessed and charted, Montebello Unified School District trustees were not really surprised to find their worst suspicions confirmed.
Many Latino and Asian children, are not shedding their baby fat. Like their Anglo and black playmates, many are just getting fatter. Worse, some are walking around with cholesterol levels high enough to send an adult to a doctor.
"We are looking at children and seeing they are overweight and are in poor health before they become adults, and that's frightening," said Eleanor Chow, president of the Montebello Board of Education.
At a recent meeting, school board members were given the results of a 3 1/2-year study by a team of scientists from Cal Poly Pomona and the UC Irvine School of Medicine. The 18-page fitness report, one of the first of its kind in the nation to focus on Latino and Asian children, described how 1,000 students at Montebello's La Merced Intermediate School were examined each year.
What the research team found made the trustees cringe.
Many children were overweight and had low cardiovascular endurance and high cholesterol levels. They were weak and, in general, becoming less healthy every year, the study concluded.
Of the 800 children who agreed to have their blood cholesterol level checked, three out of eight had levels considered above normal for children. Thirteen percent had levels above normal for adults. On the average, over the 3 1/2-year period, the research team rated 40% of the boys and 45% of the girls moderately to severely obese by current health standards. This means that about one-third of their body weight was fat.
Without treatment or intervention, some of these children are destined to become obese adults susceptible to heart attacks and other health problems, according to medical authorities.
"It's not good," said Dr. Stanley Bassin, a Cal Poly Pomona researcher who headed the team. "What we found is that children are more unhealthy than previously thought."
Until now, the school district's assumptions about the health of Latino and Asian children have been based on tests of Anglo and black youngsters, Bassin said. The study did not find that Latino and Asian children are much different, she said, but it gave educators and the medical community their first direct look at these groups.
Chow said it has long been suspected that schoolchildren who spend free time sprawled on the floor in front of the TV, eating pop-in-the-microwave burritos and pizza, are in poor health.
Nonetheless, upgrading physical education programs has not been a high priority for school administrators and trustees wrestling with budget constraints, said Bonnie Mohnsen, the district's new health and fitness coordinator.
"That's what's outstanding about this report. It has given credibility to what we have been trying to say for a long time," Mohnsen said. "Our kids have a problem."
Next week, she said, the district will conduct fitness tests at all six intermediate schools and three high schools. A salad bar already has been added to La Merced's cafeteria, and parents have been encouraged to feed their children healthier foods at home.
The district is also looking into buying its own cholesterol screening machine to check all fifth-graders for high cholesterol. Perhaps most important, Mohnsen hopes to teach children to take responsibility for their own health and decide how to improve it--a kind of physical education homework assignment.
That may not be as improbable as it seems.
After the first year of the study, Sandie Olesen was told that her daughter Shana, now 12, had a cholesterol level of 185 milligrams per deciliter. During the second year, Shana was tested at 201. Oleson's son Sean, now 11, tested at 214.
A cholesterol level of 200 or higher is considered high for adults, according to standards set by the National Institute of Health.
Olesen said she started weaning her children from whole milk, giving them low-fat milk or nonfat milk on the sly. She bought "97% fat-free" ice cream and went through pounds of chicken a week. Now, she says, her children are handling their health on their own.
"I've seen my son say "No, thank you" more when someone offers him cookies," Olesen said. "They have even become label readers, checking to see what kind of oil something is made with."
Still, early indications show that few children or their parents are following Olesen's lead.
The research team planned a meeting shortly before the end of the school year for parents who consented to have their children's cholesterol levels checked. Roughly 250 parents had signed consent forms. Two showed up for the meeting, Olesen said.
Mohnsen said she does not expect to see the poor health trend reverse until each school brings in its own physical education specialist to teach children how to improve themselves.