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The girls trudge over from their dorm rooms in robes and long T-shirts and giant furry slippers with claws on the toes. They queue up in front of the scale room for the Wednesday weigh-in. They unclasp gold chains, remove earrings and slip out of slippers. One girl wonders if she should take off her bra.

"The underwire could add to my weight," she says.

"Nah," her friend replies. "It's your boobs that add to the weight!"

They erupt in nervous laughter. But Carmen Nanninga, a big blonde from Edmonton, hardly cracks a smile. She just returned from a trip, a test to see how well she could control her eating away from school for a week. Her parents treated her to a vacation at a Mexican resort - with an all-you-can-eat buffet.

Half an hour southeast of Fresno, Calif., in a fruit-farming region famous for its raisins, the children come to shrink. They lumber here from all over the world, with chafing knees and double chins and bellies too big for them to see their feet.

Tucked in an apron of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and with tuition higher than at Harvard University, the Wellspring Academy bills itself as the world's first academic boarding school for overweight children. To enroll, students must have at least 30 surplus pounds. Few have trouble making the grade.

Rates of childhood obesity have soared in the past 30 years. In North America, they have tripled. One in four Canadian children is now estimated to be overweight and 1 in 10 is clinically obese.

For adults, a multibillion-dollar industry offers endless, if dubious, options for weight loss. But services to help children are so scarce that parents are taking out loans and raiding retirement savings to send their sons and daughters thousands of kilometres away to this $6,300-a-month (U.S.) institution.

"We had to take a home-equity line of credit to pay for it ... but it's an investment in a human being," says Nancy Stolk, the Edmonton-area mother of 17-year-old, 5-foot-10 Carmen Nanninga, who weighed 275 pounds when she entered Wellspring in January.

Weight-loss camps for kids have surged in popularity around the world. But officials at Wellspring insist that their year-round school is no typical "fat camp," where kids tend to drop pounds each summer but return every year to lose the same weight again.

Founded by a Canadian entrepreneur banking on big market growth, Wellspring Academy is a certified high school that requires students to stay a minimum of four months and take part in a tough program of behaviour modification.

The goal is to help students become healthier, and yes, slimmer, but wiser too, so they can battle the dietary demons that lie beyond this rural campus. Just up the freeway, Famous Dave's Barbeque Hut in Fresno invites patrons to "eat like a pig and squeal with delight."

"We're not going to fix the outside world from our little school here," says headmaster Phil Obbard, 34. "But we can work on changing their behaviour so they can defend themselves."

Like recruits to a health-conscious cult, students recite self-help codes aloud in unison, record each morsel they put in their mouths and every step they take, abide by strict curfews and agree to be nearly cut off from the outside world, including their families.

Parents balk, but officials here say it's all necessary to reprogram young minds raised on Xboxes and Big Macs. They also insist that their results are better than any other program's, with more than half their students maintaining their weight loss up to two years later, though the claim has not been verified in a controlled study.

Even before it turns a profit, Wellspring is spreading like a fast-food franchise. A second school opened in North Carolina in 2006. Two others are planned for Texas and Massachusetts and another for Britain, where the National Health Service has begun to foot the bill for children enrolled in weight-loss camps. British schools are sending "fat report cards" home this year detailing children's weight.

In total, the summer programs of Wellspring, formerly known as the Academy of the Sierras, now number 14. Next year, it is to set up camp in Canada for the first time, scouting a location just outside Vancouver.

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