School District Taking a Closer Look at Student Health

Ariel Van Cleave

     The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District is tracking height and weight information for its students. Officials say the information is used to get an idea of the overall health within the district.

     “The numbers just show us that we are right along with the nation in dealing with an obesity epidemic,” District Health Services Coordinator Naomi Walsworth said.

     KPBSD surveyed about 85 percent of the population between pre-K and 12th grade and found 37 percent of its students are either overweight or obese. She said roughly 5 percent of students are considered “severely obese.”

     “That means their BMI is above 120 percent of the 95th percentile; almost off the charts there.” 

     But Walsworth said the BMI, or Body Mass Index, is only one part of the story for a student’s overall health.

     “We’ve got the Super Bowl coming up and if you look at professional athletes that play football, you’ll find that many of them who are super fit would fall into the body mass index level of being labeled obese. So there are times when people have so much muscle that this number that they’re given maybe doesn’t represent their health well,” she said. 

     That’s not to say there are a lot of KPBSD students walking around that would actually fit into that situation, but Walsworth said that’s why the BMI must be considered in context.

     “There’s so many other factors, for instance, did my parents die at a young age of heart disease? Do we have a history of diabetes in my family? All these other factors should be looked at.”

     The district has been collecting this information for the last three years. Walsworth said the idea came from the Homer area where people wanted to bring more awareness to the issue of obesity. She said at the time there was a consistent drumbeat across the nation to change food choices within schools. Walsworth said looking at this information has had an effect on schools on the Kenai Peninsula.

     “In our district, there’s been a real change in that the vending machine use has really dropped. And… it isn’t all just student nutrition, but I would like to say that our nutrition department has made amazing strides. I would encourage you to go eat a school lunch and you’ll see that there’s vegetables and fruits and colorful items on your tray. Anything that’s cooked in the school cafeteria is not fried,” Walsworth said. 

     And she said there’s been an overall push for more activity. But that isn’t just during PE classes. Walsworth said there has been a focus on in-class activities and more intramural sports. KPBSD has wellness committees at the school and district level where a lot of these ideas are formed. She said she often relies on a catch phrase to help herself, and others, remember healthy habits.

     “It’s called ‘Five Two One Zero.’ And we’re encouraging five servings of fruits and vegetables every day. The two is for two hours or less of screen time per day, and as that has gone up you’ve seen, in our nation, a rise in obesity. We’re encouraging one hour of physical activity a day. And zero sodas or sweetened beverages per day,” she said.  

     Walsworth said keeping an eye on the health of the student population is necessary because kids who are overweight or obese, stressed or not getting enough sleep may not perform as well in the classroom. Often times those students get sick more often and miss more class.