Summit schools putting Kaiser dollars toward combating obesity
November 23, 2015
The data continues to roll in: Colorado is fighting a battle — some even grant it the status of an epidemic — not unlike that of the rest of the country, against factors that allow children to become overweight, and worse, obese.
According to the state's Department of Public Health and Environment, 26.5 percent, or more than 1 in 4, of Colorado's kids ages 2-14 were counted as overweight or obese in 2013. The numbers are more encouraging, if only slightly, for high school-aged students, at nearly 1 in 5 who fall into one category or the other. But it remains an uphill climb for the favorable measurement of individual's weight-to-height ratio. Countless studies show how the higher an adult's BMI, or body mass index, the higher their risk for a number of chronic diseases, problems sleeping and even premature death.
Enter Kaiser Permanente, which, after seeing these and other similar alarming statistics, decided to get involved. It did so with a program the health-care provider dubbed Thriving Schools to offer grant K-12 funding nationwide to school districts willing to implement plans to reverse what can all too often lead down this dangerous path. Through a statewide application process, the Summit School District soon became one of the grant's pilot programs, focusing on its K-5 demographic.
Here in Summit County, the school district struggled for years with how best to administer its everyday, on-site after-school programming at local elementary schools due to a lack of financial support. Finally reaching a breaking point in spring 2011 and unable to find a model that both supported the staff who ran the program and the glut of students and their families who needed the service, the district was forced to shutter its program. And, for the 2011-12 academic year, none existed.
The next year, however, through a collaborative community effort that, among others, included The Colorado Health Foundation, The Summit Foundation out of Breckenridge, Keystone Science School, Breckenridge Recreation Center and the Family and Intercultural Resource Center (FIRC) , the school district found, funded and adopted the nationally-recognized coordinated approach to child health program, or CATCH. The now internationally-recognized after-school platform attempts to circumvent the same pitfalls that have created some of these current — and unfortunate — weight-related health trends.
Colorado is often thought of as one of the nation's bastions of health, routinely ranked in the top five states for the most active and least obese. While that may still be true, the percentages are on the rise across the country, and, with an increasing percentage of the state's young population finding themselves in this poundage predicament, Kaiser initiated this program in February 2013 and is focusing on schools.
"So many children and adults spend so many of their waking hours at school, and we wanted to find a way to invest in schools and also contribute to the overall health of the community," said Bridget Beatty, the healthy schools program manager for Kaiser. "Physical activity leads to healthy weight, stress reduction and mental wellness — all key ingredients to increased performance for children, as well as school employees."
Once a school district is awarded a grant — and Kaiser has dedicated more than $3 million to Colorado schools since the program's inception — it has a number of directions it can go to meet requirements for how the money is allocated toward improving physical activity and nutrition education. That can range from the classroom setting by offering short breaks or "all-school movement" where activity is encouraged for each child and built into the schedule at what are deemed critical moments everyday. Other districts double-down on P.E. classes or recess.
CATCH filled a void that would have quickly become an ever larger after-school chasm locally. Not only that, says Julie McCluskie, director of communication for Summit School District, it's improved on what had previously been offered: Adults primarily delivered supervision until parents came to pick up there children, with no deliberate nor synchronized syllabus in place.
"The CATCH program has been a terrific replacement," she said, "it's provided a much richer after-school experience than before. With both the physical education curriculum and nutrition curriculum, it's taken the after-school program to a totally different level, with a chance for kids to engage in healthy activities."
CATCH works because, according to the organization's website, it is evidence-based, relying on the largest school-based "obesity prevention program" study ever conducted in the United States. On top of that, the program persists in being tested and improved by the University of Texas School of Public Health.
Not long after being introduced, the after-school program available at four of the six local elementary schools quickly capped out at about 20 kids per day, each with a lengthy waiting list. It was the following year that the Kaiser grant arrived for the first time, today allowing the school district to expand CATCH to all six elementaries (Breckenridge, Dillon Valley, Frisco, Silverthorne, Summit Cove and Upper Blue) and increase to an average of 30 kids attending per day.
The majority of funding for the CATCH program district-wide still comes from The Colorado Health Foundation and The Summit Foundation — and all organized by the Keystone Science School — but Kaiser's Thriving Schools funding has allowed the school district to maintain and expand the after-school service overall. A few schools actually have more than 40 registered to fill holes left by students missing certain days for various reasons, and even now with waitlists.
"We've maxed out at each school," said Annie Markuson, CATCH program manager who is based out of the Keystone Science School, "and without that money and partnership with Kaiser, we really wouldn't be able to provide the same program at the affordable rates that we do."
This total pot of money — which after Kaiser invited the district to continue for an additional two-year cycle through the 2016-17 school year, and with it another $20,000 per academic calendar for a running total of $60,000 — now allows the district to turn away no one from CATCH. Regardless of financial need, that includes families paying full fees to attend upwards of five days a week or as few as three, all the way to those who qualify for free or reduced-cost lunch for the same number of days, though sign-up is still on a first-come, first-served basis.
As for specifics on how the after-school program operates, kids either stay on-site at their elementary or are bussed to the Breckenridge Recreation Center, depending on the school. Once arriving to programming by between 3-4 p.m., each child is fed a healthy snack, which might one day consist of a yogurt parfait, a cold veggie pizza the next. "We're not just giving them a piece of fruit," noted Markuson. "We really do try to keep it interesting and offer a variety."
Then comes a nutrition lesson that is themed and runs program-wide, followed by approximately an hour of moderate to vigorous physical activity. This consists of a short warm-up, followed by a skill-building session like jumping rope or bouncing a basketball, all finished with a cool-down before parents pick up their children by 5:30 p.m. And repeat.
Proponents of CATCH also say it can even function as a bottom-up process, where children can and frequently do arrive home and ask their parents for healthy food and snacks similar to those they receive after school, thereby informing adults on better ways to eat, too. This process in the fight against overweight childhood and obesity is bolstered by Kaiser's ongoing reinvestment in the communities in which it serves, says Markuson, with programs such as Thriving Schools. According to Kaiser, the program, once more ranging from standard P.E. courses and recess to more intensive ones like the CATCH after-school platform, has now reached more than 550,000 Colorado students, and counting.
"We recognize health goes beyond the doctor's office," said Kaiser's Bridget Beatty. "Schools cannot educate if students aren't ready to learn, and it's our desire to impact lives, work and play and contribute to those settings to help make the healthy choice the easy choice. We believe it's all about lifelong health—living happy, healthier and longer lives."
Kaiser Permanente maintains Colorado's largest nonprofit health-care plan and will open its first mountain medical offices in January of next year, a primary care facility in downtown Edwards and one in Frisco at the Basecamp retail center located at 226 Lusher Ct., across from the Whole Foods Market.