- The Washington Times - Monday, October 4, 2004

REEDLEY, Calif. - Required exercise at 7 a.m. sharp. No personal televisions or computers. A cafeteria bereft of potato chips and candy bars but full of good-for-you vegetables.

Mal Mahedy’s new school has many rules that other teens would find intolerable. But Mal, 16, embraces the lengthy list of dos and don’ts. She hopes it will help her finally overcome the one problem that she says has plagued her since she was 10 — her weight.

The 5-foot-8, 285-pound teenager started her junior year last month at the Academy of the Sierras, a new yearlong therapeutic boarding school for overweight adolescents.

“This is definitely the last resort before surgery,” Mal said.

The school combines a strict eating plan and a ramped-up activity schedule with counseling and college-prep courses to attack students’ problems from several angles. Students say it all happens in a supportive atmosphere, without the taunting and teasing that made life difficult for them in other schools.

The academy, which has a dozen students but expects 25 by year’s end, is billing itself as the ultimate solution for teens like Mal, whose ranks have increased in recent decades. A May report by the International Obesity Task Force estimated that 10 percent, or 155 million, of children worldwide between 5 and 17 are too heavy. Almost 45 million of them are obese, which generally means weighing 30 percent or more over their ideal weight.

In the United States, about a third of young people are overweight or obese.

Private schools and summer camps — and to some degree, public schools — are trying to offer healthier meals. But the Sierras’ founders say its first-of-a-kind, comprehensive program will reach beyond short-term weight loss to alter students’ lifestyles.

“We’re almost making them professors of successful weight loss,” said Molly Carmel, the school’s deputy clinical director.

Ryan Craig, the academy’s executive director, said the parent company, Aspen Education Group, has poured $5 million into renovating the 68-acre campus, a former psychiatric hospital near the Sierra Nevada. It has a staff of 25 and can handle 70 students.

Aimed primarily at 13- to 18-year-olds who are more than 30 pounds overweight, the school costs $5,500 a month — about twice the cost of typical prep boarding schools. That can put the Sierras academy out of reach for many children who might need it most.

Mal’s parents, who sent her to this town southeast of Fresno from Naples, Fla., are paying mostly out of pocket, with health insurance covering about a third of the cost.

“They just want me to lose the weight so I can have a better life,” Mal said.

Wearing pedometers to help count their daily steps, seven students began the morning with a two-mile walk. The rigorous schedule is designed to jump-start a sedentary lifestyle, said clinical director Daniel Kirschenbaum.

Students’ days are meticulously mapped out from 6:45 a.m. to 11 p.m., with activities in the morning and the evening. They get three meals and two snacks a day.

They can eat limited portions, up to 1,200 calories, of “controlled” foods, such as potato pancakes and smoked salmon. But they can have their fill of “uncontrolled” foods — fat-free cottage cheese, vegetables or fruit — as long they record them in their diaries.

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