CHICAGO — When Michelle Obama announced a $50 million initiative sponsored by Nike to bring physical fitness programming to 50,000 schools across the country, 6,500 Chicago Public Schools students packed into the McCormick Place auditorium to do some celebratory warm-ups with the first lady.
But before and after the squats, jumping jacks and stretches guided by Olympic athletes, CPS teachers say their kids were left to stand still for hours with no food and little water, leaving them with the feeling that the action-packed day they'd been promised was more about publicity than the students.
"It was like they were the backdrop for a Nike commercial," Leah Putnam, a fifth-grade teacher at Jordan Community School, said in an interview Monday. Putnam was so upset about the experience Thursday she wrote a lengthy blog post about it.
Carolyn Aberman, a parent chaperone who attended the event with Decatur Classical School, echoed Putnam's sentiment. She said her group of about 120 students were positioned behind a pole for the on-stage event, which was still the highlight of their experience.
"There was no food provided after 10 a.m.," she told DNAinfo.com Chicago. "There were apples and apple slices sitting out when we arrived, but no one told us that we were allowed to take them, and there was nothing provided on the buses. There were not accessible vending machines and the food court was closed. It was a total disaster and all of the kids deboarding the bus at 4:45 were saying 'worst field trip ever.'"
But while one CPS student acknowledged she had to stand a lot and was hungry during the event, she enjoyed it overall.
"I saw [Olympian] Gabby Douglas and she's like my role model," said Chloe Starbuck, 10. "I love her. I will remember that forever."
Putnam said she and hundreds of other teachers were invited early last week to take part in the event via an email.
The email said "they needed 3,000 spots to fill" for "a high-energy launch event" where kids could "learn more about physical activity and nutrition, and have some fun."
But the Rogers Park teacher says that wasn't what happened when her students arrived at McCormick Place.
"The kids were miserable," she said. "There was nothing for them to do. They had some containers for water, but there were no cups. One of my parents found five apples. She just set them down and the kids were like wild animals trying to get something to eat. We had parents who work night shifts and had to go straight to work after this. We had parents who had kids in kindergarten who they couldn't pick up."
Putnam says that after her fifth-graders had gone through security and picked up their T-shirts, they were asked to stand quietly in three lines for about an hour before the event kicked off around 11 a.m.
Outside food and drink weren't permitted at the event and were confiscated by security at the door. A White House official confirmed that lunches provided by CPS awaited students on the buses after the event.
But Putnam said that when the festivities wrapped at 1:30 p.m., her students had to wait 2 1/2 hours as hundreds of buses were loaded with students, which kept her kids from eating until bus 291 left the expo center at 4 p.m.
The White House official said structured activities were provided for kids before the on-camera event, which kicked off with a sudden reveal of thousands of students behind a curtain and lasted more than two hours, including a mini-concert from surprise guest Jordin Sparks.
Activities included choreography lessons, mural-painting and remarks from guest athletes, the official said. Obama also addressed the children personally before taking the stage to speak to the media.
Putnam said she was disappointed by the event, and wouldn't do anything similar again.
"For CPS, all state standardized tests start now," Putnam said. "For us to miss a day this close, it was like a waste of a school day. We could've been in the classroom learning something."
Chloe Starbuck, however, didn't agree with Putnam's assessment.
"We had to do so much standing, we didn't have a lot of food and I was hungry," Chloe said, who attends Hawthorne Scholastics Academy in Lakeview. But that didn't ruin the event for her.
She said she would "definitely not" have preferred studying to the star-studded afternoon.
Her father, Rogers Park resident Scott Starbuck, said his daughter didn't seem fazed by any logistical mix-ups.
"This is the first I've heard about a lack of food or whatever," he said. "She came home and was very excited, and said she and her buddies got right out front. ... Kids can go all day long and not think about that, while parents of course might worry."