Building Minds, and Muscles

Daily Health Solutions, Fitness, Weight Loss
on August 1, 2011
Julia Vandenoever Liz Wolfson (left) and GALS co-founder, Nina Safane, with some of their students.

Visit the Girls Athletic Leadership School (GALS) at 8 a.m. on a typical day, and it’s obvious there’s nothing typical about this public charter school in Denver. Unlike most sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders, these middle school students aren’t at their desks, cracking open their books. Instead, some are whizzing around a soccer field; a handful are walking a mile-long route with a teacher; scores are shaking their hips to a Zumba video; and others are kicking and chopping as they learn Karate from a second-degree black belt.

The 127 girls, who are as diverse as the United Nations, are participating in morning movement, one piece of an innovative curriculum that emphasizes health and wellness, along with academic success and personal development. The school, one of the first in the country to employ this holistic approach to learning, was the brainchild of Liz Wolfson, a former organizational consultant who spent most of her career developing strategic plans for big companies. After the birth of her first daughter in 2006, though, she was ready to work on a different kind of plan. “I wanted to build something that taught girls that it is their birthright to be strong and powerful,” says Liz, a former Brown University field hockey player who recalls how confident and alive she felt when her body was in motion. “Middle school is an awful time for most girls. Playing sports made me feel comfortable in my own skin.”

Liz wasn’t interested in creating a school of mega-athletes. Instead, drawing from research showing that the more your body is engaged, the better your mind can function, she wanted to integrate movement, health and wellness into every aspect of the school day. “I was determined not to be denied,” laughs Liz, who took out a loan from her parents, found a new building within a week when the original one fell through, and had a few run-ins with the Denver school system to get GALS going last year.

Her determination paid off. The school, which will add a new class annually until it is a full middle and high school, is well on its way to meeting her vision. The pledge, which the students recite daily, includes statements like, “I take care of my body” and, “I stand up for what I believe in.” The technology lab has inflatable fitness balls instead of chairs for sitting (or, more accurately, bouncing) and some classrooms have standing desks in case students want to stretch their legs. “Sometimes movement is as simple as getting up to act out the periodic table, showing how water is put together,” says Liz, 44. The girls can eat and drink during class (no soda or candy, though) because low-blood sugar levels can affect focus and comprehension—and because Liz wants the girls to think of food as nourishment for their bodies, not as a substitute for emotions.

Not surprisingly, Liz is still not satisfied. “Fridges stocked with healthy food in the classrooms, fitness machines in the hallways, longer transitions so girls can get mentally prepared for their next class,” she rattles off, when asked about improvements she’d like to see. Still, she pauses to reflect on what she’s created so far. “These girls are getting a sense of who they truly are and can be,” Liz says. “That’s the best education you can ask for.”