By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
Does Hialeah have the fattest school in the nation?
Two months ago, Mae Walters Elementary teacher Charlie Filpes went before the Miami-Dade County School Board with a bold claim: An article was about to be published in the Journal of School Health, he said, calling his "the fattest school in the nation."
What Filpes didn't mention was that the findings, published as a letter to the editor in the May edition of the journal, were the result of a study the teacher himself conducted. Filpes measured the height and weight of every student at the Hialeah school — more than 850 of them — and calculated each one's body mass index. He was shocked by the findings: More than 36 percent of the students qualified as obese; an additional 17 percent were overweight.
"They're superfat — superfat!" Filpes says. "When you consider that 36 percent is higher than the obesity rate in adults, that's really scary." (The rate for grownups is 33 percent.)
The charismatic teacher has been waging a personal war on obesity among his students for more than three years. It began, he says, when he brought coolers filled with sugar-free fruit drinks to open houses, encouraging parents to stock the beverages instead of soda at home. Gradually he began working lessons on nutrition into his fifth-grade classes. It wasn't long before he had created his own curriculum.
Filpes explains, "The first thing I do is teach the nutrition label," which involves a little mathematics lesson to boot. Students compare the difference in grams of sugar, for example, between white milk and chocolate milk (the latter has 80 grams more), both of which are served at the school cafeteria. Then the kids multiply by the number of days in the school year — about 180.
"That's 14,400 grams," Filpes points out. After a while, Filpes says, his kids stopped drinking the stuff altogether. "None of my kids drink chocolate milk," he says. "And I don't hold a gun to their head. I just teach it to them."
Filpes began hosting an after-school fitness club twice a week; at one point, about 80 kids had joined. They started losing weight — up to 10 pounds in some cases. Filpes sent surveys home to parents, seeking feedback about the program and asking whether their children had persuaded them to keep healthier foods around the house. The surveys came back with glowing reports. "My daughter ... is much happier about herself," reads one. "Everyone in the family has noticed. Thank you."
Meanwhile, though, Filpes was having less success with the school board. He lobbied to have chocolate milk removed from the cafeteria; no luck. He met with school officials, explaining his program and its results, and asking for something like it to be implemented system-wide. The answer: no money. "Granted, there's budget cuts right now," admits Filpes. "But my success in my classroom had nothing to do with money. It's called nutrition education, you know what I mean?"
A frustrated Filpes finally conducted a study declaring Mae Walters "the fattest school in the nation." It's likely an exaggeration, but according to Dr. James Price, who published the findings, Filpes has indeed identified higher levels of obesity — and in younger children — than have been published almost anywhere.
"What we do know is that obesity tracks from childhood to adulthood," Price points out. "A very large percentage of those obese as children will be obese as adults." And obesity, Price says, translates to a shorter lifespan.
And that's a statistic that bothers him, Filpes says. "You're telling me that two-thirds of my kids are going to die younger than they have to? I take that personally."
Shock 'n' Roll
Kicked off the bus, a metal head fights back.
Mark Whittington is not the kind of guy who lets things slide. So even though three years have passed since he was kicked off a Miami-Dade Metrobus for allegedly distributing Nazi propaganda, Whittington is still looking to get even. This past January 28, he sued the county for defamation, seeking $95,000 in damages.
"I am not going to let it go and let them badmouth me," Whittington says. "If I let them call me a Nazi and a racist, what's next?"
Whittington, an aging aspiring rocker whose band goes by the name Nuclear Skull, is no stranger to tangles with The Man. In 2004, he sued Sterling Realty president and Miami Police Cmdr. William Alvarez, claiming the realtor-cop harassed and threatened him when he resided in an apartment building near the Vizcaya Metrorail station. Whittington also filed a complaint with Miami's Civilian Investigative Panel. His lawsuit was dismissed, and the CIP cleared Alvarez of wrongdoing. At the time, in an interview with New Times, Whittington described himself as a rattlesnake. "I don't bother anyone," he said, "but if you step on me, you're gonna get bit."
A year later, on the morning of February 7, the punk/metal rattler got on a northbound T bus in downtown Miami. According to Whittington, an elderly Hispanic woman was handing out religious brochures to other passengers. She offered Whittington a pamphlet, which he accepted. He sat down in the back of the bus. On the seats around him, he placed five three-by-five promotional flyers for his band, featuring a logo of a skull with a radiation symbol stamped on its forehead.
Five minutes later, Whittington claims, driver David Cruz stopped the bus and walked to the back. The transit man allegedly yelled, "Okay, pick up this shit or get off my bus!" When Whittington protested that the woman was passing out her literature, Cruz allegedly screamed, "Because she is not a Nazi passing out bullshit Nazi propaganda!"
Whittington said he was so shocked he just stared at Cruz in disbelief. Whittington also accuses the bus driver of saying, "I'm going to get a cop to get your Nazi, racist ass off my bus!"
At North Miami Avenue and 13th Street, Cruz flagged down a Miami Police officer, who escorted Whittington off the Metrobus. An angry Whittington called Miami-Dade Transit's complaint line. According to the agency's incident report, Cruz denied mistreating Whittington and insisted that Nuclear Skull's founder was passing out "Nazi/racist propaganda." The transit agency did not discipline Cruz.
Some people might think Whittington is looking for an opportunity to plug his band or that he's just plain lawsuit-happy. But he asserts that is not the case. "If I wanted to do that, I'd go to Churchill's and dance like a monkey onstage for 50 cents," he says. "I just wanted an apology."
The Changing Tide
Carlos Quenedit, a former dancer with the National Ballet of Cuba, crossed the Mexican border in late April, arriving in South Florida last Friday to begin rehearsing with the Cuban Classical Ballet of Miami, a company created to cradle the talents of exiled dancers.
Quenedit is the fourth recent defector to grace local stages this year ("Fly Like a Swan," April 10). "They come seeking the freedom to express themselves and develop their careers," says Pedro Pablo Peña, the troupe's co-artistic director. "They're choosing to do a grand jeté into a world of truth."
The 22-year-old defected from the renowned Cuban company a year ago and has been performing with the Ballet of Monterrey in Mexico, Peña says. Word of Quenedit's border crossing quickly spread in the close-knit dance world.
The Cuban Classical Ballet of Miami soon invited Quenedit to make his U.S. debut at the Manuel Artime Theater in Little Havana this weekend. Quenedit will join the three other recently exiled Cuban stars in The Best of the Classical Repertoire.
Since defecting from the Cuban company in December, dancers Taras Domitro, Hayna Gutiérrez, and Miguel Angel Blanco have been training and living with the company's co-artistic director, Magaly Suárez, who is also Domitro's mother. Quenedit will stay there too. — Janine Zeitlin