A regulation adopted by the state Public Health Council in April requires schools to calculate the body mass index, or BMI, of students in grades 1, 4, 7 and 10 and report the numbers to parents and the state.

As a school nurse, Kathy Teal has spent more than a decade finding ways to get kids fit and healthy.


Teal, a nurse at South River Elementary School in Marshfield, has hung posters, organized programs and brought a play to the school encouraging healthy eating and an active lifestyle to ward off the growing number of childhood obesity and diabetes cases that worry professionals.


Now Teal and school nurses across the state have another tool to use in that campaign.


A regulation adopted by the state Public Health Council in April requires schools to calculate the body mass index, or BMI, of students in grades 1, 4, 7 and 10 and report the numbers to parents and the state.


A person’s body mass index number, which is computed using height and weight, indicates whether a person is overweight, underweight or in between. For children and teens, age and gender are factored in for BMI screening because body fat can vary so much between boys and girls and by age.


While many school districts have been calculating the number for years, now all schools will be required to phase in the program. Eighty Massachusetts school districts are required to start reporting the data by the end of this year; the remaining school districts will begin in 2011.


The program is intended to keep parents informed about their children’s health and address any problems. But it has drawn criticism from health professionals who say giving parents a number without enough context could lead to undue concern for parents and kids.


“People can get hung up on numbers very easily because they’re concrete,” said Jennifer Logan, a clinical exercise physiologist who works with overweight children at South Shore Hospital.


“A lot of it isn’t so much the numbers, it’s getting the child and the family to have a healthy lifestyle,” Logan said. “You need to be able to take those scores and spin it into something positive.”


Marge Rossi, the nurse leader for Scituate public schools, said some parents have opted out of BMI testing since letters were sent out last week. That option is available to all parents. Some already have the test through their family pediatrician, but others weren’t comfortable with that information being taken and passed along to the state, she said.


Rossi said the new program addresses serious health problems, including high cholesterol and diabetes, that health officials are seeing in young people.


While the body mass index number is calculated using weight, the number will be a starting point for dialogue with parents, she said. It will also be coupled with healthy changes in the cafeteria, classrooms and physical education, she said.


“We don’t want to make this about weight,” she said. “This is a health initiative, and weight is just one piece of the puzzle.”


In Marshfield, school health officials are still in the planning stage for instituting BMI reporting. Teal said the focus will be on making the body mass index just another part of a schoolwide effort to live healthier.


“That’s one of the best messages we have for kids: It’s all about balance,” she said. “The thing is making sure they feel good about themselves, not checking what size they are.”


Reach Kaitlin Keane at kkeane@ledger.com.