GALS school breaks gender barriers

Walk into GALS school in Denver, and a few things catch your eye:

Sixth-graders study pH levels in science class at GALS, an all-girls Denver charter school.

Everyone’s wearing athletic shoes. Students in some classrooms are lounging on the floor or sitting on bouncy balls. There are plants in the bathroom urinals.

But none of these are the most unusual aspect of this charter school.

What is? No boys.

However, there are plenty of sweaty, middle school girls power-skipping through hallways and raising their hands so exuberantly in class you worry their shoulders will dislocate.

Colorado’s first all-girls’ charter school

GALS, which stands for Girls Athletic Leadership School, is making waves as the first girls-only charter school in Colorado.

The school, with a mission that focuses on the physical and mental health of students and staff, is now in its third year. Next year, it will move into the former Del Pueblo elementary building, at 750 Galapago St., from its tight quarters in an upper floor of a Calvary Temple building at 200 S. University Blvd.

Some challenges regarding resources, space and programming have been overcome and some remain. But Denver Public Schools’ staff recently recommended that GALS get three more years on its charter contract, with the option of a fourth if certain conditions are met. The school board approved the contract extension Thursday.

“GALS is an example of a school that largely flies under the radar in Denver’s education community,” DPS board President Mary Seawell said. “It has been under-appreciated from the time it first applied for a charter to even now, when it has two years of promising performance under its belt.

“I think now that it has a long-term facility, it will be able to grow and strengthen even more.”

Liz Wolfson, GALS co-founder and head of school, believes single-gender academic programs at the secondary level are essential to cultivating female leaders who are self-confident, critical thinkers. Studies have also shown that athleticism is directly tied to leadership skills in girls and women. For instance, a 2002 survey by Oppenheimer Funds found that 82 percent of female business executives had played organized sports after elementary school.

The GALS school’s brochure states that GALS “engages health and wellness as a key contributing factor in optimizing academic achievement and self-development.”

In short, Wolfson said, healthy bodies fuel healthy minds.

More than special programs needed

Wolfson does not believe it’s enough to offer specialized summer camps or after-school programs for girls as a way to promote leadership skills.

Students in class at GALS wearing GALS T-shirts, which is part of the charter school’s dress code.

“It’s the birthright of girls to be empowered from day one in the place they spend most of their time,” she said.

Wolfson’s goal is to create a safe and supportive space to help young women figure out who they are so they can discover their passions.

For GALS student Imani Porter, 11, there is another major benefit to the GALS model – no boys to distract you.

“Here you can get your work done better,” Porter said. “At my old school, guys were always disrespecting girls and calling them names.”

A peak in the classroom

As with most novel school programs, visitors are routine and welcome. Show up at the front office and you are provided with a map. Pop in a classroom and a student clad in black sweats or yoga pants greets you, offering a description of the current activity.

The instructional model is hands-on and group-oriented, often with real-world applications.

In an eighth-grade social studies class, while studying World War II, the students pondered recent cases involving the delicate balance between protecting national security and individual rights. In a science classroom, eighth-graders ran Hot Wheels toy cars down various ramps of different heights to record distance based on conditions and materials used.

“Research shows girls learn best when (lessons are) tied directly to relevance,” Wolfson said, in between juggling a report of a kid sick in a bathroom and various urgent-sounding messages from the office via two-way radio.

How movement is incorporated

In addition, physical movement is an integral part of every school day.

Everyone wears athletic shoes at GALS school.

Four days each week, every student starts her day with 45 minutes of movement, usually running or circuit training, all designed to get heart rates up for at least 20 minutes. Teachers also provide regular “brain breaks” in class, which may require girls to stand up and do “right brain, left brain cross-over motions.” If a girl is having trouble focusing, she might be asked to run up and down the hallways.

Classroom furniture such as “standing desks,” chair frames for exercise balls and rocking chairs also facilitate constant movement during academic lessons.

That explains the school’s unusual dress code. Students and staff must wear black bottoms – shorts, skorts or yoga pants. On top, they can wear a GALS shirt or a white shirt and they can also wear a gray or black sweater or sweatshirt. Everyone wears athletic shoes. Any exposed midriffs or cleavage gets you sent to pick out more appropriate clothing from a bin at the school.

“They have to be able to run a mile or do yoga at any given time,” Wolfson said.

At first, the girls complained about the dress code but at a recent student council meeting, student feedback was positive. Students said it influenced their ability to make friends without judging where those students came from or how much money they had.

GALS demographics

Sixty-five percent of the school’s 180 students are students of color and 54 percent qualify for federal lunch aid, an indicator of poverty.

Several staff members and students said they value the diversity at GALS. At the same time, students have something important in common – their gender. At a recent meeting with class representatives, students brought questions and concerns about bathroom sanitation and the need to support girls who were just beginning their menstrual cycles.

“Two hundred girls here are getting their period and we’re allowed to talk about it,” Wolfson said.

It was the single-gender education model and the student diversity that attracted Teach For America alumna Liz Reetz, 22, who teaches sixth-grade social studies.

“I was really excited to teach in a school that wasn’t so homogenous,” she said. “It’s a really good place to work in terms of teacher quality of life. I get to work out with the girls. The environment isn’t really rigid or stressful.”

Teaching is still challenging work, she added, regardless of the school’s seemingly laid-back atmosphere.

“I love working here,” Reetz said. “The students are really engaged. The school culture helps build that. They feel comfortable and safe to engage.”

Goals for GALS

Wolfson has lofty goals for GALS – that it both expand to include high school and become the first of many such GALS schools across the country. She envisions future U.S. senators and corporate CEOs proudly proclaiming themselves GALS alumni.


The school, one of two single-gender charters now operating in DPS, will not start adding high school grades for at least another year. But the school’s board of directors is busy working out expansion details. The goal is to have 600 students, half in middle school and half in high school.

Wolfson crafted the vision for GALS but says it would not exist without the enthusiasm and energy of Nina Safane, the school’s director of health and wellness. Safane was still in college when Wolfson hired her as an intern. They shared a dream about the need to better educate girls.

“We really hit it off,” Wolfson says, noting that their “intergenerational relationship” fueled creativity.

“We are making sure girls have access to every opportunity so they have a choice to be a mom or a high-powered executive or both at a certain period of time, she said. “That is the definition of having it all.”

Wolfson is an example of those different roles. She’s 45 and has two daughters, ages 6 and 22 months. Before entering education, she lived in Israel and worked in high tech as a consultant who is credited with bringing the United Way to the Middle East. Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak was her first client.

“I am a start-up person by nature,” Wolfson said.

When she returned to the U.S., she said she couldn’t find people she wanted to work for. At the same time, she connected with a couple of childhood friends who had become educators. Wolfson landed work creating a comprehensive development plan for the American Montessori Society. The idea of starting a school began to take root.

Challenges remain

GALS staff acknowledge various course corrections along the way. For instance, the school eliminated a range of elective classes this year to focus on the school’s core mission.

“We made this conscious decision we could do a lot of things mediocre or do a few things really well,” said seventh-grade social studies teacher Jennifer Derosby.

Money has been the main issue. The school has had to work hard to foster community relationships and build additional support financially and otherwise. But there still isn’t enough money to pay for all the field trips teachers want students to take or to hire more teachers.

“The first school is always the hardest,” Wolfson said. “You come up against huge obstacles, mostly resource-based.”

While GALS’ focus on girls and physical movement is innovative, Wolfson said the desire for innovation in education is “both a blessing and burden.”

“While I believe districts and states want it, they still want it all figured it out beforehand,” she said. “The word ‘innovation’ is a catch-22 in today’s world of education. Is it actually innovation, or just innovation because you’re giving folks a bit of wiggle room to do something?”

Ratings for GALS dip in some areas

Meeting DPS’ performance expectations has been challenging too.

Students recorded results of a science experiment in a colorful poster in the hallway of GALS.

The first year, the school’s test scores and other indicators “blew them out of the water,” Wolfson said of district leaders. But it proved difficult to maintain that academic growth.

While district staff recommended a three-year contract extension for GALS, a citizens group charged with reviewing the same data recommended the school only get two years.

Members of the School Improvement Accountability Council wrote: “GALS fell short of meeting its target of a 40% (English language learner) population. While GALS is a district program and not boundary bound, for many families, location is still a factor in choosing a school. The move to Del Pueblo next year may assist in attracting more ELL students.”

At a recent DPS school board meeting, the district’s chief of innovation and reform described the staff recommendation for a longer contract term for GALS.

“They’re performing better than the DPS average but not as competitively as similar school clusters,” Alyssa Whitehead-Bust said. “Their performance in a two-year history declined one year to the next. That’s something we want to continue to monitor closely, but there is a strong culture and educational programs.

“We are looking forward to being able to offer more supports to teachers.”

School hoping for more English language learners

DPS board member Andrea Merida said she is most concerned about the small number of English language learners at the school, which is between 6 and 8 percent.

“GALS can avoid linguistic segregation and be a legitimate choice for all female DPS students and show a commitment to diversity and inclusion by providing the right services for English learners,” Merida said. “I was happy to vote for GALS in my first board meeting, and if they can show a solid plan for properly supporting ELs, I will be happy to support their charter renewal for four years.”

Despite uneven performance, students and families are showing interest in GALS.

Wolfson said the number of students signing up to shadow GALS students in preparation for choosing a middle school doubled over last year.

“We are a start-up school,” said Derosby, the social studies teacher. “We are constantly figuring things out and tweaking them. Each year, we get more and more clear about what our priorities are.”

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.