Partnerships with school districts could be new norm at Bluffton weight-loss academy

rheaton@islandpacket.comSeptember 15, 2012 

The constant coaxing just isn't enough, and Chrystal Loyd is starting to show signs of frustration.

No matter how hard she and her classmates try, the horse won't move. "No way, no how," the animal seems to be saying to the teenagers -- many of whom met just a few days ago -- as they try nudging, clicking their tongues and out and out begging the horse to walk through a row of tiny traffic cones and over a low-lying log.

Chrystal is out in front, saying "Come on, come on," repeatedly, trying to make the horse believe that taking a few steps forward would be a good idea. But as the minutes wear on and the horse stands resolute, Chrystal seems at a loss. At one point she hops over the log herself, modeling what the horse should do.

The horse still doesn't budge. But that's OK. Chrystal and her classmates will try again another day.

For Chrystal, the equine therapy lesson on a Wednesday morning is part of the second chance she never would have had on her own. Chrystal is at MindStream Academy, a small boarding school in Bluffton that focuses on helping students lose weight and turn their lives around though classes on nutrition, regular workouts, equine therapy, gardening and other activities.

Chrystal is there with the help of her school. The 15-year-old, who lives in Independence, Mo., a suburb of Kansas City, said she doubts her family would have been able to afford the school's $28,500 per semester tuition on their own.

But the Independence School District and MindStream have worked out a deal. About half the tuition for 15 Independence students is being paid by the school district and the students' families. The other half comes from donations to MindStream.

Partnerships like this are what MindStream officials envision as a way forward for the school, which opened in January 2011.

If all goes well with the students from Independence, other school districts could start sending their students to the school for its blend of nutrition and fitness curriculum, counseling and support, and academic courses.

MindStream's founder, Ray Travaglione, said they've spoken with school districts in Mississippi and Kentucky, as well as state officials in Arkansas.

In South Carolina, the school has spoken with the S.C. Department of Educationabout becoming an option for at-risk student. To do that, the program would have to be certified by the National Dropout Prevention Center in Clemson, said Jay W. Ragley, a spokesman for the state department. Education department staff would have to visit the program first, but that's not currently planned, Ragley said.

If all goes well, MindStream could expand to locations across the country, said David Katz, the senior medical advisor for MindStream who helped orchestrate the partnership between the school and the Missouri school district.

Katz and Jim Hinson, the Independence superintendent, have worked together on several other health and wellness programs the school district has implemented.

Tackling childhood obesity, and all the health issues that come with it -- such as diabetes -- makes sense for a school to take on, said Katz, who is the editor-in-chief of "Childhood Obesity Journal" and the founding director of Yale University Prevention Research Center.

School districts can bend over backwards to help kids struggling with their health, Katz said. But they're usually not equipped to solve the problem, and it means diverting resources and energy away from other students. It's a lose-lose situation, he said.

By sending students to MindStream, the Independence School District is diverting resources into a program that works, he said. Kids lose an average of about 45 pounds in the program according to MindStream data.

"You could say it's above and beyond the call, but that depends on what the call is," Katz said. "If the call is to take good care of every kid, it's not above and beyond."

But expansion of the program is a ways off, and a big goal. For now, there are smaller goals to tackle -- pounds to be shed one by one for each of the Independence students so they can move closer to the dreams they have. Chrystal wants to work for the FBI, she said, and is focused on strengthening her people skills as well as losing weight. With the help of MindStream those goals might be possible, she said. She's already learning to avoid fast foods and eating out when she gets home, and has been working to keep up with the goals a personal trainer has set for her.

"If it weren't for the school district, I couldn't dream of this," she said.

Follow reporter Rachel Heaton at twitter.com/HomeroomBft.

Related content: Independence schools send 15 students to health camp; Kansas City Star; Sept. 8, 2012

Miss SC shares 110 lb weight-loss story; Aug. 3, 2011

Bluffton OK's weight-loss academy's expansion despite neighbors' protests; April 22, 2011

MindStream Academy

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