School program expanding to fight rising childhood obesity

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Last year, 21 percent of Detroit high school students were obese, nearly double the state average.

With the help of a generous donation from a local couple, the University of Michigan Health System is taking aim at children’s unhealthy habits by expanding wellness programs at three Detroit charter schools.

Former paving company owner Robert Thompson and his wife Ellen donated nearly $200,000 to the Project Healthy Schools program through their foundation. The couple also helped charter two of the current participating schools — University Prep Science and Math Middle School and University Prep Academy.

Officials are currently discussing how to implement the program at a third Thompson-funded school — Henry Ford Academy: School for Creative Studies.

The collaborative effort by U-M and various foundations, community organizations and public schools teaches sixth graders heart-healthy lifestyles. This winter, a portion of the funding will also be used to offer students free health screenings.

“Children who are obese are much more likely to become obese adults,” says Kim Eagle, M.D., a cardiologist and a director of the U-M Cardiovascular Center. “And we know that obese adults are much more likely to have a whole variety of problems, which can include high cholesterol, premature cardiovascular disease, sleep apnea, diabetes, high blood pressure and sudden cardiac arrest.”

“We don’t have to be an obese nation,” adds Eagle, who founded Project Healthy Schools in 2004. “We can change our culture to be healthier and we can start that in schools.”

The couple’s gift enabled two new wellness specialists to join the staff and helped expand the program further into Detroit, which started at University Prep Academy and University Prep Science and Math last year.

This isn’t the first time the philanthropic couple has donated to Eagle’s program. The Thompsons became donors years earlier after Eagle, who is involved in Robert Thompson’s care, mentioned it.

The program seemed like a perfect fit for the Thompsons’ vision for Detroit students.

“We can give these kids the best education in the world, but if they’re physically handicapped from being overweight or obese, then we really haven’t served them well,” says Robert Thompson.

Expansion of the program comes at a critical time — according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, childhood obesity rates in the U.S. have tripled in the past 30 years.

“We see a high percentage of the kids involved in Project Healthy Schools change their behavioral habits associated with one or more of the program’s goals,” says Susan Aaronson, a wellness coordinator for the program.

“We will now enter the research phase in Detroit,” she adds.

The health screenings are a key part of generating data. Screenings include a 3-minute fitness test, a cholesterol, lipid and glucose screening, a pre-intervention behavioral survey, and blood pressure and height and weight measurements.

A post-intervention survey is administered once the program ends. These results allow the program’s staff to evaluate if a child’s behavior has changed after participating in educational activities.


CDC’s 2009 Detroit Youth Risk Behavior Study

Project Healthy Schools

U-M Cardiovascular Center

Written by Heather Guenther