- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 29, 2004

A California boarding school opening in the fall will teach up to 70 overweight students to change their eating habits and exercise to slim down their frames.

The Academy of the Sierras, a Reedley, Calif., institution run by the Aspen Education Group, will open in September as the first-of-its-kind private school for children who are at least 30 pounds overweight.

The college preparatory school, 25 miles southeast of Fresno, Calif., will focus on weight loss and long-term behavioral changes for those ages 13 to 18, said Executive Director Ryan Craig.

Students will have regular courses in addition to activity goals, a reduced-fat diet and behavioral therapy sessions.

Mr. Craig expected enrollment to pick up before the first semester. But he acknowledged that the estimated $4,000 to $5,000 monthly tuition may prevent many obese children, especially those in poorer families, from attending.

Parts of the school’s tuition can be covered by health insurance. Student loans also are available, but there are no scholarships through the academy.

Courses, which are transferable to other schools, include mathematics, social studies, science, history, English and psychology. But there are no advanced-placement courses for college credit.

Mr. Craig said the hardest part of the program will be helping students make the transition from a controlled environment back to their homes.

Parents, who determine much of their children’s eating habits, participate in a weekend workshop to help create a transition plan. The school then monitors the student’s life at home for six months through regular phone calls and on the Internet.

The Cerritos, Calif., education company Aspen Education Group has 15 other specialized boarding schools for troubled teenagers.

Myra McGovern, spokeswoman for the National Association of Independent Schools, a D.C. trade group for 1,200 schools, said the Academy of the Sierras was the first school to focus on healthy lifestyles and diet.

Families increasingly are requesting programs and schools for heavier children as childhood obesity rates soar, she said.

About 30 percent of U.S. children are overweight or are likely to become so, according to a recent government report.

Mr. Craig said the school is ready to take care of health concerns that accompany obesity, such as diabetes, hypertension and gastrointestinal problems.

There is no maximum-weight requirement for an applicant unless the teenager needs immediate hospital treatment, he said.

Some students may be put on Optifast, a liquid diet meal plan, or Meridia, a prescription appetite suppressant, to speed up weight loss. But the goal is to change attitudes, Mr. Craig said.

“It’s not just about weight loss; that’s the easy part. The harder part is changing their behavior, but I think students can be successful if they put a good transition plan in place,” he said.

Aspen Education might expand the academy to hold up to 150 students depending on results this year, said President and Chief Executive Officer Elliot Sainer.

Gerard Musante, who runs a Durham, N.C., residential weight-loss center, said residential programs tend to get the best long-term results.

“That sort of program allows people to focus on themselves 100 percent and realize the changes they need to make,” said Mr. Musante, a psychologist and founder of the Structure House.

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