In 2008, Liz Wolfson created the vision for Girls Athletic Leadership Schools Inc. (GALS Inc.), a network of single-gender public schools designed around two core ideas: empowering girls and young women, and incorporating athletics and movement directly into the academic environment—a concept not necessarily embraced at traditional public schools. Wolfson based the idea in part on research showing that “embodied education,” as it’s sometimes called (another term is “whole bodied education”), can boost cognitive performance.
After a successful fundraising campaign, the first GALS middle school opened in Denver in 2010, serving girls in grades 6 through 8. Since then, GALS Inc. has branched out to include a girls’ high school in Denver and a girls’ middle school in Los Angeles, as well as an all-boys middle school, The Boys School of Denver, which opened in 2017. Additional grades and schools are in the works.
A former Division 1 field hockey athlete at Brown University, Wolfson holds a master’s degree from Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. Prior to founding GALS Inc., she worked for diverse organizations and entitities including the Institute for International Sport and Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak. We caught up with Wolfson by phone to learn more about how GALS came about—and the role that she believes movement and wellness can play in optimizing academic achievement.
Your background was not in education. What motivated you to start GALS Inc.?
I had moved back to the United States from Israel and couldn't find a job that I wanted, or one that wanted me. I’d been raising funds for a holistic retreat center on the East Coast and one of the board members knew that I was interested in and involved with various kinds of female or feminist programming, ventures, and organizations. He handed me two books on girls’ schooling. And I had this moment where my heart jumped out of my body. And I was like, I'm going to do this, even though I have no background in education.
The other motivating factor was that I had been a Division 1 athlete, and I really wanted to get back to the arena of fun and aliveness that came from playing sports.
You’ve said that your schools teach content through movement. What exactly does that mean?
We like to say that movement is our pedagogy. We operate on a practice of keeping kids moving throughout the day, which is based largely on brain-science research by [University of Washington biomedical engineering professor] John Medina, PhD and [Harvard psychiatry professor] John Ratey, MD. Their research shows that movement can boost cognitive achievement. So what we did was create an infrastructure for a school based on the premise that sitting at desks all day is not healthy for brains.
This idea is called whole-child learning, and it has been further fleshed out by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative in the [San Francisco] Bay Area, which defined the six domains of whole-child learning as academic, cognitive, social-emotional, physical, mental, and identity. From an education perspective, to me, you can't have one without the others. To help young people become leaders and have self-confidence, we have to educate their full, whole-body selves.
What does teaching through movement look like in a classroom?
There are two main forms it can take: brain breaks, which are finite periods of movement interspersed between or within lessons, and lessons that themselves are taught through movement.
There is evidence that sitting for prolonged periods has many adverse health effects and may negatively impact learning. So teachers are trained—and then observed, coached, and formally evaluated—on their ability to insert what we call brain breaks, which are either short (five minutes) or longer (20 minutes). The breaks are designed to restimulate brain activity to help the students regain focus and optimize learning. This idea is based in part on research from the University of North Carolina which found that acute bouts of exercise can have small positive effects on various aspects of cognition.
A brain break could look like everyone takes two laps around the hall, or it could look like the class going outside and playing a game of Ships and Sailors. We have huge resource guides that we've developed that have games from Eyeball Tag to Rock, Paper, Scissors to baseball.
The other model, teaching content through movement, means that lessons are actually delivered through or while doing a physical activity. For example, think of a math class where the students are learning integers, say zero to 10 and zero to negative 10. I can see this happening out on a football or soccer field where the yards are measured. Everyone is starting in center field, which is zero, and the teacher is standing on a ladder holding up a placard with a math problem on it—say, negative six plus 10—and they have to skip or jump to the yard line that matches the answer (for example, skipping if they’re going in the positive direction, and jumping if they’re going in the negative direction). They have to show their understanding of how the problem works by doing it through action.
When people walk into the school, most people tell me it feels like a combination of a community center and a summer camp. And I'm like, yeah, that sounds like a school I would go to!
The original GALS Inc. model focused on educating girls and young women. How did a boys’ school come about?
In the beginning, GALS Inc. was an organization interested in building gender-based schools only for girls who identified as female. But then in 2017 we opened a boys’ middle school because if we believe in equity, then it should be available for both boys and girls. Our culture today also throws toxic masculinity on boys, as well as traditional femininity on girls. So even though the name is GALS Inc., we actually have schools that serve both those who identify as female and those who identify as boys. Our schools include the entire spectrum of gender identity, including non-conforming kids and youth.
How many schools does GALS Inc. currently have? Any plans for further expansion?
Right now, we have four schools: the girls’ middle school (grades 6-8) and high school (9-12) in Denver, the boys’ middle school (6-7) in Denver, and a girls’ middle school (6-8) in L.A. Next year we plan to add an eighth grade class to the boys’ school in Denver.
GALS Inc. will continue, with available funding, to create more schools in more communities. Right now we are hoping to open schools in Idaho in 2021 and exploring the possibility of opening schools in western Massachusetts, also in 2021.
This opinion does not necessarily reflect the views of the UC Berkeley School of Public Health or of the Editorial Board at BerkeleyWellness.com.