In the Hills of North Carolina, a Controversial Experiment in Weight Loss
Tuesday, May 20, 2008; Page HE01
For many teenagers at Wellspring Academy of the Carolinas, located at the end of a serpentine dirt road, the remote mountain outpost students call "fat school" is a last-ditch stop in a losing battle that has consumed their lives.
The tiny school, which opened last year in a refurbished summer camp in Brevard, N.C., 400 miles southwest of Washington, is designed to test one of the most radical, controversial and expensive ideas about how best to treat pediatric obesity. At issue is whether plucking youths as young as 11 who are at least 30 pounds overweight out of "obesogenic" environments and sending them to a highly structured therapeutic boarding school for rapid weight loss and intensive behavior therapy actually works.
A month's stay at the school, which has a maximum enrollment of 50, costs $6,250, making a year at Wellspring more expensive than a year at Harvard. "We know that moderation has not been successful for these kids," said Wellspring president Ryan Craig, a graduate of Yale and its law school, who characterizes measures like improving school lunches as too little, too late.
A former investment banker who persuaded Aspen Education, a for-profit behavioral health company, to spend $6.5 million to test the approach, Craig opened the first academy in 2004 in a shuttered mental hospital outside Fresno, Calif. Until March the schools, the first of their kind, were called Academy of the Sierras. Two more campuses are scheduled to open, one near Boston and the other near Austin, and a growing number of state child welfare agencies have expressed interest in placing obese children at Wellspring.
"Overall, our success rate is excellent," Craig said. The average weight loss for students who stay eight months (twice the required minimum) is 81 pounds, he said, and the first class of 15 students on average maintained their weight loss 10 months after leaving -- the only results Wellspring has published. Among them is Terry Henry of Exeter, N.H., who enrolled in September 2004 at 15 weighing 558 pounds. He left 15 months later weighing 253 pounds and today weighs about 278 pounds, school officials say.
Henry's success contrasts with the experience of Jahcobie Cosom, 18, of Dorchester, Mass. Cosom, who lost 167 pounds at the school and 30 during his first month home, gained 260 pounds in less than a year, his weight rocketing to 562. He is scheduled to undergo gastric bypass surgery this summer.
"If their families don't change, [students] are going to be back to their old ways of doing things" when they get home, said Anjali Jain, a pediatrician at Children's National Medical Center who specializes in treating obesity.
Jain and other experts question the expense and necessity of boarding school. They say that there have been no published studies of Wellspring that meet the gold standard for scientific research and that an adequate assessment requires a follow-up far longer than 10 months. Regaining weight less than two years after losing it is common, Jain said. "We see that kind of weight cycling in adults all the time," she noted.
But to desperate parents who typically find Wellspring online, packing a child whom classmates have nicknamed "Miss Piggy" off to a therapeutic boarding school seems worth it, despite incurring substantial credit card debt, draining a college fund or taking out a second mortgage. Many have already exhausted less drastic options: camps, personal trainers, gym memberships, therapists and nutritionists, not to mention threats and bribes.
"It will bankrupt us to do this," said Barbara Luciani of Mount Airy, whose 17-year-old son, Nick, enrolled in January weighing 300 pounds and suffering from high blood pressure. "But we were looking at that -- or his life."