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Katrina Bledsoe of the College of New Jersey writes about the inclusion of student voices in the evaluation of an obesity prevention program.

Programs operating in community-based and school settings are often focused on providing needed services to those whose voices and ideas are not prominent in the program's development and evaluative stages. Funders and philanthropists often want to obtain good information using the evaluative process but do not always engage in a democratic process; at times they may be somewhat dictatorial. They require organizations to demonstrate they have collected certain information, and if that information is not available, then their funding may be in jeopardy. Yet, funders should avoid being dictatorial about evaluation practices—not because their perceptions of what information is appropriate to collect are incorrect but because they may not understand the underlying existing conditions that compromise the collection of that information.

Deliberative democratic evaluation is an approach that incorporates the democratic process within the evaluation and allows for the inclusion of a variety of opinions, views, and experiences.¹ The principles of democratic evaluation can be used to enhance the inclusion of underserved groups and aid in the eradication of inaccurate programming based on stereotypes and preconceived perceptions of the consumers and their needs.

Much of the work we have conducted with the Trenton Central High School (TCHS) Obesity Prevention Project follows the principles of democratic evaluation, especially those that encourage inclusion and dialogue of all levels of stakeholders. The project is sponsored by the Trenton Teacher's Network (TTN) of New Jersey, a group within the school district that includes constituents from the faculty and staff from TCHS, local public health organizations, community-based organizations, and the College of New Jersey.

The objective of the project is the prevention of adolescent obesity. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have estimated that 20% of U.S. adolescents are obese (having a body mass index [BMI] of at least 30).² TCHS' ethnically diverse population of Black and Latino students seems to be more at risk than the national average. Of the baseline data acquired thus far, 33% are considered overweight (having a BMI at least 25) and another 33% are considered obese.

TTN addressed the students' overweight and obesity problem with a prevention program focusing on healthy eating and exercise. The program consists of three components: physical (teaching students to exercise regularly), psychological (making students understand their eating habits), and educational (teaching students to make healthy food and eating choices). The components are executed through a variety of strategies, such as implementing walking clubs, encouraging students to keep food journals, and holding a screening of the documentary Super Size Me.

The intervention is not without its challenges. Although TTN recognized the obesity problem in the high school, they seemed to have some difficulty in ascertaining the underlying reasons for the problem, partly due to a wide cultural divide. TTN is predominately composed of White and non-Trenton residents, a very different makeup than the targeted students. Similarly, the city itself is a socioeconomically challenged state capital in one of the wealthiest counties in the state of New Jersey. Thus, it has been crucial to understand the community context both culturally and economically.

Given the disparity between TTN and the students, we actively sought to broaden the stakeholders to include students. In bimonthly focus groups, their voices provided information to program designers that prevented program strategies from being insensitive to cultural and socioeconomic differences. Through these focus groups, we gained an understanding of what might be an effective program design and by extension a fair and representative program evaluation. For example, students told us that body image was less of a health motivator for Blacks and Latinos than for Whites. This has affected the approach we have used in presenting material about obesity; during our screening of Super Size Me, we focused on physical health (e.g., high cholesterol, high blood pressure) rather than presentation of that health (e.g., looking thin).

Although students do not officially serve on TTN, focus groups include student voices and help create a form of indirect dialogue; high level stakeholders ask questions in response to the findings of the focus groups, and students provide answers and suggestions for appropriate program design. In the coming months student leaders in the program will be asked to review and comment on evaluation instruments prior to their administration.

The principles of democratic evaluation have been helpful in fostering an inclusive environment for evaluation of the Trenton project and have encouraged a more equitable process in which the voices of the underserved are heard.

¹ House, E. R., & Howe, K. R. (2000). Deliberative democratic evaluation checklist. Retrieved August 18, 2005, from
² Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2005). BMI - Body mass index. Retrieved August 18, 2005, from

Katrina L. Bledsoe, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
The College of New Jersey
P.O. Box 7718
Ewing, NJ 08628-0718


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