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Thursday, October 28, 2010

Reforming education and fighting childhood obesity with one punch

 -- Written by Amy Nakamoto, Executive Director

For the past several weeks, there have been strong feelings expressed about how the mayoral election will affect education reform in the District. News coverage has centered the discussion on teacher effectiveness and the use of testing to gauge student academic progress within a given year.

There has been equally as much national attention on childhood obesity with First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign.

However, few people have highlighted the correlation between physical activity and academic achievement as ONE MORE concrete solution.

This is of particular concern here in the District, where we face the dual crisis of low academic proficiency levels and frightening (over 35%) levels of overweight and obese children ages 10-17. We have the ninth highest rate of childhood obesity in the country. Further, African American and Hispanic children are developing Type II diabetes at much higher rates than their Caucasian peers -- almost half are at risk of developing diabetes. Studies have found that, on average, overweight children are absent from school 20 percent more than their normal-weight peers.

Studies also show that sport participation and regular physical activity are associated with higher standardized test scores, greater rates of homework completion, higher levels of concentration and memory, and a decrease in dropout rates, to name a few. When discussing the myriad solutions to close our achievement gap between white students and black and Hispanic students, at least one of them should include addressing the discrepancy in the number of physical activity and sport participation opportunities within this city.

DC Parks and Recreation does not have the budget to offer robust program offerings and DC Public Schools does not have the budget to sustain a quality interscholastic sports experience for their current limited offerings, let alone add a full slate of sports at all schools. Nonprofit groups work hard to fill the gaps in certain underserved communities, but inevitably it is not enough. There are still young people lacking opportunities who can and should benefit from regular physical activity, healthy competition, and the lessons sports and fitness can bring.

September was the first ever National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month. While awareness is a good first step, we all know it does not necessarily mean change. As with substandard education, an overweight or obese child has a lifetime of projected hardship that affects them, their communities, and the greater economic society in which we all live.

It is not enough to have parallel conversations about obesity and education reform. Addressing issues of access and inequality simultaneously in both arenas would mean a higher percentage of District youth achieving positive life outcomes. 

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