Connie Matthiessen, Associate Editor
Not long ago I wrote about the differences in physical fitness programs — and fitness outcomes — at a wealthy suburban school and an inner-city school (both in the Bay Area). As reported in The Bay Citizen, kids at Sycamore Valley Elementary School, who train regularly with "physical fitness experts" and have access to sleek facilities and plenty of outdoor space, do far better on statewide physical fitness tests than their peers at Cesar Chavez Elementary School, who are taught PE by classroom teachers on a fenced-in black top.
New research from Penn State provides additional evidence that schools have a major impact on kids' health. The study, published in the journal Social Science and Medicine, found that attending a poor school puts adolescent children — even children from families who are not themselves poor — at higher risk for obesity.
Health experts have long assumed that family poverty was the greatest predictor of a child's weight, with lower-income children at higher risk of obesity. The Penn State researchers found that parent education also plays a major role — that is, kids with more educated parents are less likely to be obese. But their analysis showed that attending a poor school has more influence than family income on weight problems; it also appears to undermine the positive influence of parent education.
According to an overview of the study on the Penn State website, "A parent with a graduate degree and who has a child in a poor school is more likely to raise an overweight adolescent than a parent with an eighth grade education who has an adolescent enrolled in a rich school."
The Penn State researchers don't know exactly why kids at poor schools are at higher risk for obesity, but they suggest it's because these schools offer unhealthier food choices and have fewer resources for physical fitness and athletic programs. In addition, poor school environments are often stressful, and repeated activation of the stress response is known to increase abdominal fat.
Whatever the reason, these findings underscore the tremendous role schools play in shaping kids lives. This reality could be either good news or bad, depending on our society’s commitment to children and the quality of our schools. Given the frenzy of education cuts across the country — with everything from days in the school year to arts and PE programs on the chopping block — it's hard to be optimistic.