At Boarding School for Overweight Kids, Weight Loss Is the Core Curriculum

PHOTO: Jenna EliseABC News
Jenna Elise, 17, works with a fitness instructor at the Wellspring Academy in Asheville, N.C., At 272 pounds, Elise is diabetic and walking was a struggle for her.

Wellspring Academy is unlike any other school in the United States. It's a boarding school for overweight and obese teens, that features weight loss as it's core curriculum alongside reading, writing and arithmetic.

For many students, attending the academy is a last resort -- and sometimes a life-saving one. When 17-year-old Jenna Chrisman enrolled in the school, she was 272 pounds and already diabetic. Simply walking is a struggle for her, and she said she was relentlessly teased at her old school where her classmates called her a "manatee and hippo."

"I was afraid I was going to die," she said.

Childhood obesity has tripled over the past 30 years and today, nearly one in every three school-age kids is overweight or obese, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. But Wellspring believes the solution to the alarming obesity epidemic lies as much in kids' minds as in their metabolism.

In addition to math, history and other subjects, Wellspring's curriculum includes the science of weight loss, broken down across nutrition, physiology and psychology. Students undergo an intense behavior modification through the use of food diaries combined with cognitive therapy, both in a group setting and one-on-one.

The school has campuses in North Carolina and California and recommends students attend at a minimum a four-month semester, but officials prefer students enroll for nine months, or a full school year. The 40 or so students who attend Wellspring range in age from 11 to 18, and some are tipping the scale at 400 pounds.

When Michael Schlesinger, 16, arrived at Wellspring nine months ago he weighed 428 pounds and said he had trouble wrapping a seatbelt around his waist.

"When I realized I couldn't really do anything, like I would get out of breath walking down the block, just take my dog up and down the street, and it came to the point where I had enough," he said.

Schlesinger said his first week at Wellspring felt like torture. He was plagued by shin splints, which made it hurt to walk, but he said he lost 15 pounds in his first week, and seven pounds the next. Over the course of nine months, Schlesinger managed to lose 160 pounds.

PHOTOS: Michael Schlesinger's Dramatic Weight-Loss Transformation

Wellspring students have a weekly weigh-in and the rules are very strict. Students aren't allowed to watch TV except in the gym, they only get two 10-minute phone calls home a week, and absolutely no food outside the dining hall.

Wellspring officials are not obsessed with counting carbs -- they are focused on fat. Their goal is to provide portion-controlled entrees for their students that contain zero grams of fat a day, because in their view, a fat makes you fat, no matter what the source. The staff watches the students' every meal and move. Regular exercise is also part of the deal.

"We're trying to teach our kids to gain the control of wanting and desiring that amount of structure," said Heather Richardson, Wellspring's clinical director.

Wellspring said several nine to 18-month follow-ups have shown that about two-thirds of their participants either maintain or continue losing weight after leaving the school -- which stands in sharp contrast to most weight loss programs, where the vast majority of dieters re-gain their weight. The whole package costs approximately $50,000 for an academic year.

"If we look at the overall cost of being obese over one's lifetime -- a recent study [conducted by Wellspring] showed that it cost $153,000 over a period of a lifetime to be obese in lost wages and medical expenses," Richardson said. "So if we look at that number, then $6,000 a month [the cost at Wellspring] seems a little bit more reasonable."

Another estimate put the cost of obesity in the United States at $147 billion per year in medical fees, according to a 2009 CDC report. The report also stated that people who are obese spend almost $1,500 each year in health care costs.

Sydney Appelbaum weighed 211 pounds on her first day at Wellspring. Even though she has lost over 65 pounds during her nine-month stay, she said she still sees a 200-plus-pound girl staring back at her in the mirror.

"It's not until I make myself consciously think about it that I can make myself somewhat point out positive things," she said.

"I had such a negative view for so long, because I've struggled with my weight my entire life," Applebaum continued. "At meals, sometimes I will poke my thighs. I'm very aware of all the weight and so it's hard to shake that feeling.

School officials hope the therapy sessions will help turn Applebaum's view around. In the one-on-one sessions, students share their secrets and their pain as therapists try to pinpoint the emotions that sabotage their healthy habits.

But it seems to be paying off. Jenna Chrisman has lost 30 pounds and said she is "happy to be alive every single day."

A newly svelte Applebaum made a trip home to her high school prom this weekend to reveal her new body. Her time at Wellspring ends soon, and she admits she is nervous about gaining back the weight when she faces "normal life" again.

And Michael Schlesinger's whole physique has been altered completely -- so much so that his father didn't recognize him on his last visit home for spring break.

Wellspring students will leave looking radically different, but the key to their success is to have transformed their minds too.