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The Glenn Miller Orchestra, named in honor of the famed bandleader whose plane went down over the English Channel during World War II, will perform Oct. 21 at the Temple Theatre in Viroqua.

Holmen students prep for annual ACT exam

HOLMEN — It takes a lot of logistics to pull 300 high school juniors together for a three-hour exam.

To give students exposure to the ACT exam, which the state requires all juniors to take in February, an entire wing of the 1,200 Holmen High School campus was dedicated to students taking and teachers proctoring a practice version of the test Thursday morning. The ACT, which provides a composite score from English, mathematics, reading and science testing, is used by colleges and universities in their admissions process and by Wisconsin to measure whether students are proficient in state standards.

The high school has been providing a practice test to students for four years, Principal Bob Baer said. Students at Onalaska High School and La Crosse Logan High School are among other local high schools that practice for the test. At Holmen, students take an older, retired version of the test, with results calculated and analyzed for the district by Cambridge Education Services.

The practice exam is treated like the real thing, with teachers adhering to the strict time limits on the four sections of the exam and enforcing rules that prohibit outside items such as water bottles and cell phones. The results the school gets from Cambridge include a breakdown of scores in the four subject areas as well as detailed information about performance on each question of the test.

Those details allow teachers, counselors and staff to target interventions in specific areas. If most of the students get questions on a topic such as adding fractions, staff can put more resources into another area, such as quadratic equations, if students are struggling with that.

“We like being able to practice the exam,” Baer said. “It lets the kids know just how serious the test is.”

Wisconsin mandated all high school juniors take the test starting three years ago. In other states, such as Minnesota, students choose whether to take the test, which costs between $46 and $62.50 per attempt depending on whether students take the optional writing portion of the exam.

ACT results used to be of interest only to students attending more selective four-year schools, guidance counselor Kelli Korneta said. Today more and more two-year schools and even the military are interested in the scores, as research has shown they are a good predictor of student success after high school.

Junior Kayla Callan hope to go to a four-year school after graduation to study nursing. Because these programs are so competitive, she said she knows she’ll need a high score to get in and hopes to get a 25 or higher on the exam.

She said taking the practice test was good experience, as it showed her just how important time management is. Students only get so many minutes to answer the questions in a subject area, and using that time wisely to answer all the questions can be tricky.

“I had more than enough time for the math questions,” she said, “but reading was a little trickier for me.”

Scientists engineer proteins that caused obese animals to lose weight and lower cholesterol

As the U.S. obesity rate has galloped toward 40 percent, doctors, drug designers and dispirited dieters have all wondered the same thing: What if a pill could deliver the benefits of weight-loss surgery, but without the knife?

New research brings that hope a notch closer.

Scientists from the biotechnology company Amgen Inc. report they have identified and improved upon a naturally occurring protein that brought about significant changes in obese mice and monkeys, including weight loss and rapid improvements on measures of metabolic and heart health.

The results, published Wednesday in Science Translational Medicine, approximate some of the mysteriously powerful effects of bariatric surgery, in which a surgeon reshapes the stomach and intestinal tract to reduce their capacity. Even before surgery, patients lose a lot of weight, most see marked improvements in obesity-related conditions like insulin resistance, high circulating blood sugar and worrisome cholesterol levels.

In mice who got a bioengineered version of the GDF15 protein, the researchers observed even more remarkable changes. These obese mice turned their noses up at extra-rich condensed milk — a treat that normally prompts mice to gorge themselves. Given the choice, the treated mice tended to opt for standard mouse chow instead, or at least lowered their intake of the fattening condensed milk.

After 35 days, obese mice treated with the bioengineered GDF15 proteins lost roughly 20 percent of their body weight, while mice getting a placebo gained about 6 percent over their starting weight, according to the study. When mice were offered the rich condensed milk, triglyceride levels remained at baseline or rose by about 20 percent in those who got the engineered proteins, while levels more than doubled in the untreated mice. Insulin levels and total cholesterol readings were also significantly better in treated animals than in their untreated counterparts.

The results suggest that the GDF15 engineered by researchers had the power to turn off the kind of reward-driven eating (think doughnuts, milkshakes or bacon cheeseburgers) that drives many of us to become obese, or to regain lost weight.

Some of the weight-loss medications approved in recent years by the Food and Drug Administration — including Belviq, Contrave, Qsymia and Saxenda — appear to nudge the food preferences of obese patients in more healthful directions. But bariatric surgery has a pronounced effect in shifting patients’ preferences away from high-fat foods. Scientists just don’t know why.

The natural version of the GDF15 protein breaks down quickly in the blood. To be an effective weight-loss aid, it would need more staying power.

The Amgen researchers accomplished this by fusing the protein with other agents that would not break down so quickly. The two engineered versions of GDF15 remain biologically active in the blood for longer.

In the brains of the lab animals that received the treatment, the study authors detected activation in a population of brain-stem cells that transmits complex signals between the brain and gut.

In obese people, those signals — which urge us to eat when we’re hungry and to stop once we’ve eaten — become faulty, causing us to overeat and gain weight. Bariatric surgery appears to correct those signals.

So the suggestion that GDF15 might do the same is an exciting indication that a piece of bariatric surgery’s magic might be bottled up in a pill.

“This is a new system” involved in the regulation of appetite, said Dr. Ken Fujioka, a weight-loss specialist at Scripps Clinic Del Mar. “It’s not one we’ve seen before, and that’s a big deal.”

At the same time, the system manipulated by GDF15 is only one of the chemical signaling systems that goes awry in obesity, said Fujioka, an expert on brain-gut signaling who was not involved in the new research. If a drug is to help a wide range of patients with obesity — and to aid in the twin challenges of losing weight and keeping it off — it will need to activate many different systems at once.

While bariatric surgery has been shown to be effective in spurring weight loss and a broad range of other health improvements, it is invasive, costly and irreversible. And although about 196,000 Americans had the surgery in 2015, according to the American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery, that’s only a tiny fraction of the roughly 100 million adults who are now considered obese.

On Wednesday, Amgen called the new research “early,” but said its focus on obesity fits with its interest in drugs to treat cardiovascular disease.

New findings like these help put effective treatment in reach for a growing number of the obese, Fujioka said. Obesity is a diabolically complex disease with many contributing factors, “but someday I personally think we really will be there,” he added.

ColtenB / Contributed photo 

UW-La Crosse running back John Janke (30) carries the ball against UW-Eau Claire. Janke, a Black River Falls High School graduate, was the leading rusher on the Eagles’ 1992 NCAA Division III national championship team. His brother, Jason, was an All-American receiver on that team as well.

Police not notified after inmates planned to electrocute guard at youth prison

Inmates at the state’s youth prison allegedly conspired to electrocute a guard last month, but police were never notified of the incident, according to sources with knowledge of the event.

The episode is the latest revelation of violent acts against staff members at the Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls, the state prison in Irma for the most serious young offenders in Wisconsin.

The reports come in the wake of a federal judge’s order that the prison reduce its use of restraints, solitary confinement and pepper spray to manage inmate behavior.

On Sept. 25, a group of male inmates in one of the prison’s housing units dipped the cord of an electric fan into a cup of water, poured water in a wall outlet and spilled some water on the floor near the fan, according to sources with direct knowledge of the incident but who do not have permission to speak publicly.

Many of the inmates in the unit then asked the guard to plug the fan into the wall outlet. The guard would have done so if an inmate had not, at the last minute, warned the guard not to plug in the fan.

“As he was going down the hallway toward the fan, (the inmate), who earned a gold star in my book, said ‘No! No! Don’t — it’s wet!,’” said Douglas Curtis, a former Lincoln Hills guard who retired last fall after 20 years and remains a representative of the prison staff’s labor union. “He could have died.”

Prison administrators did not notify police of the incident, Lt. Timothy Fisher of the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office said Wednesday.

The guard also wasn’t immediately moved to a different unit away from the inmates who allegedly devised the plan a day after the guard punished them for refusing to obey orders by requiring them to stay in their cells for one hour, according to the sources and Curtis.

One source also said the inmates taunted the guard and told him they hoped he would be electrocuted.

Prison administrators looked into the incident but could not determine specific culprits to punish, according to the sources and Curtis.

“No discipline ... no nothing,” Curtis said of the outcome.

Several lawsuits filed

In the past week, inmates have punched two other staff members, sending them both to the hospital — raising questions about the safety of staff at the facility.

The injuries come as the prison has been the target of lawsuits brought by current and former inmates alleging staff there have abused them through keeping inmates in isolation for weeks at a time, excessive pepper spraying and use of mechanical restraints.

Those allegations surfaced amid an investigation that began nearly three years ago and is now headed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

In the wake of the investigation, DOC has required prison guards to be properly trained in use of force and wear body cameras, required trained medical staff to dispense medication and required DOC officials to review every injury inmates receive.

Meanwhile, in the class-action lawsuit against the prison, a federal judge has ordered prison staff members to reduce or eliminate use of pepper spray, solitary confinement and restraints.

In a separate case, the state last year settled with a former inmate whose toes were severely injured after a prison guard slammed a door on his foot a year earlier.

Emboldened inmates

Current and former staff members say the lawsuits and the federal order have had a chilling effect on their abilities to properly manage behavior in the facility and have emboldened some inmates.

Last week, a teacher at the facility was assaulted by an inmate much larger than her, sending her to a hospital. Another female staff member was punched on Monday and was taken to a hospital with injuries, according to Tristan Cook, spokesman for DOC.

DOC officials have notified the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office in both instances, he said.

Pandora Kay Lobacz, the assaulted teacher who has worked in the state’s juvenile corrections system for 24 years, posted on her Facebook page Monday that there are several employees of the prison who are out on medical leave for “being battered or trying to protect youth from beating each other.”

Cook said there are 16 staff members on leave for “work-related issues.”

Two Republican lawmakers who represent the area of the facility this week asked the federal judge to reverse his order in light of the recently injuries to staff.

Litscher: Facility safe

But DOC Secretary Jon Litscher reiterated on Thursday to reporters that the facility is safe for staff — despite the injuries.

“I think Lincoln Hills-Copper Lakes, with the training that’s involved and the type of the activities that we do with working with our youth, that it is a safe place for staff and offenders,” Litscher said. “We will continue to do the best in programming that will allow these young people to come back to their communities in a respectful and responsible manner.”

Litscher visited the youth prison on Wednesday, Cook said, and spoke to staff about topics including staff safety and institution climate. Litscher and DOC officials then met Thursday to discuss ways to enhance safety, he said.

But another staff member at the youth prison, who has been out of work since the summer after being punched in the head 10 times causing a concussion, vision problems and memory loss, said guards feel like they can’t defend themselves.

“It’s not safe,” the staff member said. “I fear for my life and I’m doing everything I can to not go back to that place.”

New owners of Maid-Rite building hope to save Caledonia Street icon

A local real estate broker and appraiser has purchased the Maid-Rite building with hopes to preserve the former eatery and transform it into an office building, although a raze order might stand in the way.

Joe and Corry Van Aelstyn bought 1119 and 1121 Caledonia St. Wednesday from Jack Daughtry of Rockford, Ill., and plan to restore it — if they can work out an appeal to a city inspections raze order through the La Crosse County Circuit Court system, Joe Van Aelstyn told the city’s Heritage Preservation Commission Thursday.

“I’ve been there many times to eat. It’s one of my favorite restaurants,” Joe Van Aelstyn said.

The restaurant closed last November after nearly 70 years of feeding people on La Crosse’s North Side, and restaurateur Richard Bielke, who didn’t own the building, died in August. Joe was out of town when Bielke passed and was surprised to stumble upon the building and find it for sale when he returned in September.

“It is our intention to attempt to save it and try and rehabilitate it,” Van Aelstyn said.

That intent is complicated by an order to raze and remove the structure, issued Sept. 8 by the La Crosse Buildings and Inspections Department. According to the order, the inspections department found missing soffit and fascia, failing roof sheathing, sagging rafters and open wiring, among other issues. The order gives the owner 30 days to remove the structure, which was up Oct. 8.

“There are issues with it, but overall it’s very solid,” Van Aelstyn said.

Van Aelstyn will appeal the raze order and start repair work Friday, he said, adding that some items, such as a chimney in disrepair, visible extension cords used as permanent wiring and gas pipes that aren’t properly capped will be quick fixes.

“It doesn’t need a tremendous amount to preserve it,” he said.

As an experienced developer, Van Aelstyn is certain the building is worth saving.

“It all can be taken care of. I don’t think it’d ever be suited for food again, but there is potential there,” he said.

Corry Van Aelstyn has plans to transform the existing building into an office space for her real estate brokerage.

“We’re thinking about building something there on the empty space,” Van Aelstyn said.

First, however, Joe has to navigate the raze order appeal, something complicated by the 30-day limit. He asked the commission to consider designating the building a city landmark, which wouldn’t prevent the raze order from being carried out, but “couldn’t hurt,” he said.

“I don’t think it’s too late. It’s still standing,” Van Aelstyn said.

While the Van Aelstyns have just begun researching the building’s history, they’ve discovered that it showed up on maps of La Crosse in the late 1800s, making it at least 125 years old, probably older.

“It showed up with six or seven additions on it in 1891, so it’s really old,” Van Aelstyn said.

He said the building is an example of boomtown false front architecture, which was popular for commercial buildings at one time.

“It’s not a grandiose building, but it’s what started the commercial stuff,” Van Aelstyn said.

Van Aelstyn and his wife also think the location of the building, right in the heart of Uptowne — formerly known as Old Towne North — makes it an excellent candidate for redevelopment.

Commission member David Riel commended the idea, calling the building a rare example of early La Crosse architecture.

“I think it’s a great idea to try and salvage it,” Riel said.

The commission urged the Van Aelstyns to prepare a formal nomination application, complete with research on the building’s history.

La Crosse area restaurants you'll never eat at again

Places of the past: 26 La Crosse area restaurants you'll never eat at again (part one)
Places of the past: 27 La Crosse area restaurants you'll never eat at again (part two)