Sixteen-year-old Jason Alexander weighed 326 pounds four months ago when he and 13 classmates boarded a plane for a weight-loss boarding school in South Carolina.
When he stepped off a return flight home Friday, he was down to 233 pounds, making him the biggest loser in his Missouri school district's unusually aggressive effort to battle childhood obesity.
While individual families have long enrolled children in weight-loss programs, the Independence school district is believed to be the first to send students as a group to a program like the one in South Carolina. The 12 students who completed the program lost a combined 756 pounds, and relatives and friends who greeted them at the airport could scarcely believe the change.
Jason's mother, Debbie Alexander, said it wasn't just the weight loss. Her son who had battled a speech impediment and been slow to smile was now grinning broadly.
"It's crazy," Alexander said. "Kids have always given him grief."
The school district, donors and the students' families worked together to pay about half of the usual $28,500-per-semester tuition at MindStream Academy in Bluffton, S.C. The rest of the tuition was paid by a foundation associated with the academy and other donors.
Jason and the other students — the youngest was 11 — spent the semester exercising, studying, working with counselors and learning to eat healthier. The curriculum was practical and hands-on: Students took field trips to a grocery store and fast food restaurant to learn to make good purchasing decisions and studied things like knife skills in the school's kitchen.
Their parents, meanwhile, met monthly with MindStream's clinical director in Independence to learn how to help their children upon their return. Experts say it's hard for anyone to maintain weight-loss if their families don't also develop good eating and exercise habits.
Each student had a story of how the pounds added up. Jason's weight shot up after his father's death 6 1/2 years earlier, jeopardizing his dream of joining the military. Like many who are overweight, he became easily winded and his knees hurt.
He said he's now 40 to 50 pounds from being able to qualify for military service and plans to join a training group to help him shed the rest of the weight. His family has cleansed the kitchen of junk food, made space for a treadmill and stocked up on healthy items like ground turkey. The district envisions Jason and the other participants becoming health ambassadors in their schools, perhaps speaking to groups or working one-on-one with classmates who are struggling with their weight.
"I feel amazing," said Jason, who shed weight so quickly that he struggled to find clothes. His jeans, which he bought from another classmate, hung loose around him, cinched with a belt to keep them from falling off. "I can't believe I got to that point. I can't believe I got that big."
Several Independence parents said the program also helped them lose weight, from 5 to 80 pounds.
Angela Gentry lost 20 pounds while her 17-year-old daughter, Teah, was in South Carolina. Teah lost more than 60 pounds, and her brother lost 36 at home.
"These kids are ready," Gentry said. "They could take on anything."
The district and the boarding school didn't know of any other public schools that had made such an effort, and other experts couldn't name any either. But Sarah Stone, MindStream's programming director, said it hopes to engage other districts in similar partnerships in the future.
"It is to all of our best interest for these kids to be able to realize their best potential," Stone said.
Independence already had taken aggressive steps to battle childhood obesity, measuring students' body-mass index and posting the information on a protected website parents use to check grades and lunch account balances. The data was alarming: 36 percent of the students were overweight last year.
The district took steps to address the problem, including offering groups for students focused on healthy eating. But district spokeswoman Nancy Lewis said some students need a more intensive intervention.
"I do think there is something about them being removed from their environment that makes this a success," said Lewis, adding that the school system hopes to send a second group of students to MindStream next fall. "It just kick starts the process."
Chrystal Loyd, 15, said she felt "more energized" after losing more than 60 pounds and planned to focus now on her mother. Misty Loyd, 35, already had shed 15 pounds and run a 3-kilometer race, a first for her.
"We are going to start working out together," Misty Loyd said. "We are going to use their cookbook and start cooking healthier."