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Guv Wants $9 Million for PE, Health Centers at Schools

By Polly Summar
Journal Staff Writer
Editor's note: Today the Journal continues its three-day series on the growing threat of childhood obesity.

Is Your Child Overweight?

    TUESDAY: One teenager's hopeful struggle against her weight; grocery shopping for your health; a look at some popular diets.

    From soccer, football and baseball to tennis and volleyball, students at Douglas MacArthur Elementary are learning how to be active.
    "We rob Peter to pay Paul," says Principal Andy Barrett of his school's four-times-a-week physical education program. Schools receive funding based on the number of students they have, and PE is a top priority at Douglas MacArthur.
    "Do I think PE is crucial, essential, vital, absolutely necessary? Yes. Kids need to learn how to be healthy, active adults."
    Barrett's approach is unusual.
    Many elementary schools offer PE only twice a week, and often the teachers don't have special training. Instead, many classroom teachers find themselves teaching PE.
    Public health officials say it's time schools shouldered some of the responsibility for what they believe is an obesity crisis among children.
    To that end, Gov. Bill Richardson is asking the Legislature to approve some $9 million for his Healthy Students initiative to stop what he, too, calls the "obesity crisis" among New Mexican youngsters. (Some $1 million of that is for a teen pregnancy program.)
    The requested figure pales compared to what obesity is costing New Mexico in medical expenditures each year— $320 million, according to the New Mexico Department of Health Strategic Plan.
    Some $3.7 million from the governor's plan would be used to phase in daily physical education at all elementary schools, which would take seven years to fully implement, at a cost of almost $4 million each year.
    It would establish one PE teacher for every 250 students, says Secretary of Public Education Veronica Garcia.
    "Currently, there's no requirement that PE be taught by a certified PE teacher," Garcia says, explaining that the majority of elementary schools do not offer PE by a PE instructor. While PE is required, elementary schools are not required to hire a certified PE teacher to teach it. Middle and high school PE do require certified PE teachers.
    "It's not the PE we had," says Garcia of the proposed new PE plans. "This is more focused on lifelong fitness."
    The administration wants PE to offer kids the opportunity to develop a fitness plan they can use throughout their lives.
    "If we continue in traditional large-sided team sports or the competitive elements in these sports-skills-oriented classes, we really don't foster a lifetime of physical activity," says John Moore, program manager for coordinated school health with the Department of Public Education.
    "If all we do is cater to the good athletes," Moore says, "we're alienating the other kids and preventing them from developing a lifetime of physical activity."
    The governor is also seeking $6 million to double the number of school-based health centers, from 34 to 68, so kids with weight problems can receive help. Half of that money would come from the initial $9 million and half would come from capital outlay money. He estimates $3 million from capital outlay would cover the cost of building the sites; the other $3 million, part of his $9 million request, would cover the cost of running them. That money would go to the State Department of Health's operating budget, according to Jessica Sutin, the governor's health policy adviser.
    While the health centers look at a wide range of students' well-being, they are also instituting programs to monitor overweight kids and refer those at risk for obesity-related illnesses to their primary care doctors. They are also educating kids and families about how to prevent obesity.
    An additional $750,000 would go toward a childhood obesity pilot program with the Department of Health. "Not every kid is going to have access to a school-based health center," says Secretary of Health Michelle Lujan-Grisham. The pilot program is designed for kids who don't have access.
    "We're not going to call them obesity programs," Lujan-Grisham says. "That's a label nobody wants."
    Instead, they'll be called "health promotion" programs, focusing on fitness, nutrition and education. The program will only be implemented if funding goes through, and Lujan-Grisham says it's still in the planning stages.
    The governor also wants to put $600,000 toward elementary school breakfast programs. The current program is federally funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The governor's program would supplement the federal program, offering breakfasts at schools where they're not currently available. Research shows that students perform better in school when they've had a good breakfast.
    "I don't think you can find anyone who'll speak against PE," says Sutin. "I think the challenge will be budgetary."
    Natasha Ning, Southwest regional advocacy director for the American Heart Association, has been working with the Governor's Office, as have representatives from the American Diabetes Association and the American Cancer Society.
    "We don't want to see PE the way it used to be— dodge ball and team sports," Ning said. "It should include everyone."
    She points to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that say one in three children born in the year 2000 will become diabetic unless the problem of obesity is addressed. And research from the National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse shows that Hispanics are about two times more likely to have diabetes, and Native Americans almost three times more likely, than Anglos.
    "All kids need the opportunity to move," said an APS elementary school principal who believes daily PE encourages kids to be active. "Unfortunately, a lot of schools have even cut out one of their recesses because of academic pressure."