Volume 19 | Issue 28 | November 24 - 30, 2006

Chinatown students shape up in school

Downtown Express photos by Lorenzo Ciniglio
Gym teacher Good Jean Lau, below left, leads P.S. 1 students in a citywide program designed to prevent childhood obesity.

By Tina Shah

“O.K. Tommy you’re mine,” says Good Jean Lau, the gym teacher at Chinatown’s P.S. 1. His fifth-grade classmates bellow in laughter as Lau motions Tommy Chan to sit down across from her.

Chan, 9, walks up, lies down on his back and spreads his legs so the soles of his shoes meet Lau’s. He brings his arms close to the body frame that he considers “heavy” and then points his fingers out in front. Chan pushes against Lau’s soles and comes up to slap Lau’s palms. By the fourth one, he’s squeezing his eyes shut and pressing down on his teeth.

“Come on Tommy!” Lau exclaims loudly. Chan comes up an inch and plops back down to puff out air.

Chan is one of 1.1 million students in New York City public schools who joined the FitnessGram program. Sometime this fall, his teacher will test his flexibility, strength and body composition through a series of 20 exercises. The results will be sent home to his parents, detailing if Tommy falls within the recommended healthy zone [based on age and gender] and tips on how to improve fitness.

While for Lau the goal is to see kids like Tommy use different strategies to complete one more sit up next time in class, the goal for the city is broader.

The FitnessGram assessment is an initiative by the city to battle the soaring number of obese children in elementary schools. In New York City, of the 3,096 elementary school students tested, 43 percent were overweight and more than half of those were obese, according to a study released by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene in 2003.

City leaders and educators said pushing students to exercise and eat healthier foods are means to control obesity at a young age. The city’s September 2003 program for fat and calorie standards in foods is putting healthier food options, such as fresh salads and whole-wheat waffles, on lunch trays in schools like P.S.1.

“This was long overdue,” said Lau, referring to the FitnessGram program, which she has been training for since November 2005.

Lau, 56, said she has seen changes in the 150 fourth and fifth graders who participated in the pilot program last spring. The program was given to 235,000 students from all the elementary schools and students from two high schools and middle schools. Teachers were expected to test children age 10 and older for height, weight and the 20 exercises they had practiced in gym class, but for kids under the age of 10, height and weight were sufficient. Lau has already begun teaching her first, second and third-graders the simple FitnessGram exercises.

“Sometimes I see them at recess coming together and practicing,” hanging on the monkey bars or running, Lau said.

Back in the gymnasium, Lau begins her 15 minutes of FitnessGram training with choreographed dance moves in between the exercises. She sets up an obstacle course with mats and equipment to get the students motivated to stay active at school and at home.

Caitlin Rodriguez, 10, already has a plan to prepare for the FitnessGram.

Rodriguez, who lives in Chinatown, has made her own gym at home, where she exercises for about three hours a day, playing basketball and using a jump rope and hula-hoop. She said she looks up to her grandmother, who is 73 years old and “very healthy.”

She said she stopped eating chips and drinking soda a year ago and prefers to bring her own lunch to school.

But the cafeteria menus for students have improved over the last three years, said Harriet Savitz, a gym teacher at P.S. 1.

Savitz, 57, said there is less salt in the foods, fresh fruits rather than packaged, low fat milk and freshly prepared salads. She’s seen students throw out their filled lunch trays because they are afraid to try.

Savitz, who brings foods served in the cafeteria to her gym class and shares it with the students to “build taste and expand learning,” teaches her third grade class to read nutrition labels on foods.

“It’s really important to me knowing the kids don’t get this at home,” Savitz said, referring to healthier food choices and encouragement to exercise.

There is no official record of how many parents follow the tips to improve the kids’ fitness level outlined in the FitnessGram reports. A few parents can’t even recall where they put the report they received last spring.

“I don’t pay attention to read deeply,” Carol Chen, 38, said about the FitnessGram report that was sent home in Mandarin and English about her son.

She said she is just glad to see her daughter, who she said is fat, doing sports in class and drinking one percent milk. Lenny Zhu, 36, who was standing next to Chen and also had a son in P.S. 1 last year said, “Long time…forgot.”

But city officials remember their goal.

“It’s always been our goal to promote lifelong fitness,” said Victor Ramsey, Regional Instructional Specialist of Fitness and Physical Education for 130 schools. He trains P.E. teachers during the week for the FitnessGram program.

Ramsey, 42, said the program was under works for about five years. The idea was taken from California and tailored to the needs of New York City schools.

This year, Ramsey said, his target is to have gym teachers test all of the 1.1 million students in New York City this semester.

Lau’s target is seeing Tommy Chan improve in the school-run extended day program. Chan joined three weeks ago.

“When I do the push-ups, I’m so heavy that my arms don’t carry my stomach,” Chan said.

Lau said she wants the 16 students in the after school program to be “ambassadors of FitnessGram.”

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