Weathering childhood: Stressors that jeopardize teen health

It's a Monday morning, and Christina Cruz is already tired.

"I'm glad you're here, because I need to talk about this," the 17-year-old tells a visitor. "I stayed up all night talking to my mom."

Christina's mother is anxious about Christina and her twin, Catherine. Seniors at the Castlemont Business and Information Technology School, both have failed the math portion of the California High School Exit Exam, or CAHSEE. Until they pass, the graduation party that their big Samoan family wants to throw for them is on hold.

To graduate, seniors must pass the exit exam, earn the required number of credits and present a senior research project. An outgoing girl with a big smile, Christina passed the English portion of the exam but missed math by 19 points.

"If it's not the CAHSEE, it's the credits. If it's not the credits, it's the senior project," Christina says. "(My mother) thinks that if I don't graduate, I'm going to give up, just like that. But I'm not."

Interviews with and writings by nearly 100 students at the Castlemont Campus of Small Schools reveal three major stressors jeopardize their health: academic anxiety, lack of healthy food and an environment that limits their freedom and imprisons them indoors. Even more alarming, factors such as a poor diet and lack of nutrition can lead to health problems that can be passed on to future generations, researchers say.

Academic anxiety

Christina's right to worry about walking the stage: Research shows that one of the most powerful indicators of adult health is a high school diploma.

"People with more education are likely to live longer and experience better health outcomes," according to a December 2010 Contra Costa County study financed by the Hospital Council of Northern and Central California. Education can increase teens' health IQ, leading them to exercise regularly, avoid smoking and get regular checkups. Significantly, people with high school diplomas are less likely to report bad health than those with less education.

Asked about academics, many teens say that they dislike the classes they're taking, they don't have creative outlets and they have trouble balancing multiple requirements.

"(An) issue is what the school (has) to offer," writes Kyetta Lamb, a Leadership Preparatory High School senior. "The less sports and activities they give, the quicker we (get) into trouble."

Academic anxiety rose this year with news that the Oakland Unified School District plans to consolidate Castlemont's three small schools in fall 2012. With money from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the district broke up Castlemont in 2004, a move aimed at quieting racial tensions and raising academic achievement.

But now the Gates money is gone. Combined enrollment at the small-school campus has dropped to 700, down from 1,300 five years ago.

According to the California Department of Education, dropout rates as of 2008-09, the latest data available, ranged from 78.2 percent at Leadership Preparatory High School to 55.9 percent at Castlemont Business and Information Technology School and 43.2 percent at the East Oakland School of the Arts (not to be confused with Oakland School of the Arts, located downtown near the Fox Theater).

Worries about her siblings, one of whom was held up at gunpoint last year, distract Christina. If it wasn't for her Polynesian dance class, some days she wouldn't want to come to school at all.

"I'm worrying about learning, but at the same time I'm worried about my sister and brother's safety," she says, her brown eyes wide with concern. "When that (holdup) happened, I fell off the (academic) track."

The response is typical, says Barb McClung, mental health coordinator for OUSD. Stressed teens lose "the ability to attend to something that doesn't immediately meet (their) needs. You get very focused on the present."

Unbalanced diet

Senior De'Anna Atkins sighs when asked if she gets the recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables per day.

"It's more like one," she says, "and that's an apple."

One day in April, a visit to the cafeteria at 1:15 p.m. -- when the last of three lunch shifts begins -- finds the salad bar empty except for a tub of mayonnaise, a few shreds of lettuce and some pickles.

Emeryville-based Jamba Juice supplies healthy smoothies, but there are only seven cups left by the final shift, which serves 239 students. A cafeteria worker dishes up a few last plates of pizza and nachos.

Cafeteria manager Frances Terrell complains that her budget won't permit her to buy out-of-season produce. Also, she's been waiting two years for her soup machine to be fixed.

"I could really use that, especially on cold days," Terrell says.

Depending on your perspective, Castlemont is a food swamp or a food desert. It's definitely swamped by liquor stores and mini-marts -- four on either side of campus, including one advertising itself as "Home of the Mighty Knights."

The stores are nutrition deserts, offering chips, candy, liquor, and occasionally bananas. The stores that carry what a family dinner looks like -- meat, poultry, milk, vegetables, fruit and bread -- don't exist.

East Oakland is an area of nearly 35 square miles and 121,000 residents -- 63,000 in the so-called Castlemont Corridor, and 21,000 of them teenagers -- but it does not have a full-service supermarket. Teens say the closest one is FoodMaxx, 22 minutes away by bus.

Ironically, the building that houses Youth Uprising, a teen advocacy organization next to Castlemont, used to be a Safeway.

Though Safeway announced plans in February to open six Bay Area stores, none will be in East Oakland.

As recently as the 1970s, East Oakland had seven supermarkets, according to Olis Simmons, Youth Uprising's executive director.

No wonder students scratched their heads one day when asked to assess their neighborhood, using a "health indicator grading table" that listed "number of fast-food restaurants" and "availability of farmers markets."

"What's a farmers market?" one student asked. "What do you mean by 'thriving retail'?" queried another.

Students puzzled over whether or not East Oakland had local supermarkets.

"Does San Leandro count?" asked one.

"Local supermarkets that are healthy and green are not available to me," wrote Castlemont Business and Information Technology School senior Natalie Navarro. "Therefore I gave (the neighborhood) a grade of F. More fast-food places and liquor stores are available, and that is not healthy."

Just because food is bad doesn't mean that teens don't eat it.

"I eat all the time," wrote Luz Barosio, another senior at the school. "I say food makes me happy, and it's true, because after eating, I feel full and I (forget) about all the things that cause me to be stressful. But then again after two hours, I eat more and more."

A nutrient-poor neighborhood can pre-program a teen for bad health, experts say. Researchers have found that mothers with poor diets during pregnancy give birth to children who are at higher risk for diabetes, obesity, cancer and mental illness.

A study of babies born during the Dutch famine of 1944 and the Chinese famine of 1959 found that a severe lack of nutrition in utero greatly increased the incidence of schizophrenia.

Similarly, an experiment by epigeneticist Randy Jirtle at Duke University compared two mice born of the same mother.

During one pregnancy, she ate a diet rich in folic acid and vitamin B12. When born, both mice shared a gene for obesity, but only one had the epigenetic tag that shut it down -- the mouse whose mom ate healthy.

"So you are not only what you eat, but what your mother ate, and what your grandmother ate," says Jirtle.

Bad food is just part of an environment that's tough on teens. "All of these things are connected," says Simmons. "You can't talk food without talking about retail, without talking about safety, without talking about trauma, without talking about the role of schools."

Losing ground

Olo Fifita, a business technology school senior, takes a look at a 1927 photograph of Castlemont and whistles. "Wow, man," he says. "That was clean."

It is clean -- a photograph of Castlemont shortly after it was built, a block-long Tudor Revival confection frosted with battlements and parapets. An elegant stone birdbath and rose gardens softened the facade, giving it the air of an Ivy League college.

"The Castle looks very peaceful and healthy," writes an unidentified current student. "I would never feel unsafe or at risk in the Castle. I wish it still was a castle."

Until the 1960s, East Oakland was where African-American families with wealth wanted to live. A Chevrolet motor plant offered steady jobs. With its purple-and-white colors and a tough college-prep curriculum, Castlemont was the neighborhood jewel.

Unlike Oakland Technical High School, which was also declared seismically unsafe in the 1970s, Castlemont was torn down. Of the old facade, only one turret remains. A knight made of tin stands guard in Leadership's front office. A trophy case reflects Castlemont's glory days.

The neighborhood where one alum says "you could hear your mother calling you (for dinner)" vanished with the crack epidemic of the 1980s. "It wiped East Oakland out," says Simmons.

One casualty of the economic exodus -- which also included a host of food companies, such as Granny Goose and Quaker Oats -- is a time-honored teen tradition, hanging out at the mall.

Once home to J.C. Penney, Eastmont Town Center now houses social service agencies. It's a place to get fast food, fast cash or, if you visit the dialysis center, fresh blood. But a teen cannot buy a pair of shoes, see a movie or eat a healthful meal.

For teens, economic contraction means fewer part-time jobs. But it also means that the built environment -- parks, stores and libraries -- shrinks dangerously.

Castlemont students avoid walking the streets at any time, even during the day. Last week, a shooting in broad daylight took the life of Ditiyan Franklin, 17, a Castlemont senior who was shot and killed near campus at 80th and Bancroft avenues.

A visitor's request for a neighborhood tour is met with laughter and apologies.

"Maybe, if we could do it in your car," offers Enrique Ibarra, a Castlemont business technology school senior and soccer player.

Arts school freshman Alihzey Black can take BART to Lafayette, which her mother considers safe, but she isn't allowed to walk down her East Oakland street to visit a friend.

Ninth-grader Kevnisha Harris shows a visitor a poem about how her mother "never let us come out the house;" the illustration is a stick figure in a cage.

Not surprisingly, asked to grade their environment, including "safe parks," "easily navigable" streets and "plentiful green spaces," most students gave it a D.

"I'm not really a good person to ask about the neighborhood, because I don't really go outside of my house once I get home," Jennifer Copto, a business technology school senior, says.

"We hear a lot of shooting all the time and everyone in my community is divided," wrote Derek Mitchell, another senior.

Writer Jonathan Kozol connected physical environments and academic achievement in his 1992 book, "Savage Inequalities." "How do you encourage hope while surrounded by trash burners, dumpsites and enormous prisons?" Kozol wrote. "Why should the children learn when their lives are filled with unhappiness, toxicity and ugliness?"

Those who are trying to turn things around say it takes going back to the past to see how to move forward.

"The major reason for the disconnect (among teens) is that they don't have a sense of history," says Betsye Steele, Leadership principal. "They don't see what is a part of them. That's why our community is breaking up."