By Liz Wolfson – My daughter is 11 years old and in middle school at the Girls Athletic Leadership Schools (GALS) of Denver, the flagship school of a network of gender-based charter schools that I founded in 2008. Our organization runs schools in two states currently and we are bidding for two more to open in the next two years. In addition to building schools, we are codifying our groundbreaking curriculum to license worldwide.
We are innovative, tuition-free public schools that are hell-bent on changing how girls experience growing up, as well as changing civil discourse between girls and boys growing into humane men and confident women, because the status quo is not acceptable.
As the original brain, athletic body and heart behind the concept of GALS Inc., my title is Chief Visionary Officer (and, yes, I have learned to say that with a straight face because it is an accurate title), I bring disruptive and wise ideas to our work. For one, we believe that while after school programs and summer camps are extraordinary experiences for all of our children, they are currently inadequate vehicles to be true agents of change. There is no argument to be made against my thesis that schools are the primary place in which we can definitively, with complete intention, steer our children towards the life we hope for them. Schools are where our children spend the vast bulk of their childhood.
“We are innovative, tuition-free public schools that are hell-bent on changing how girls experience growing up…”
So fast forward nearly ten years, and my 11-year-old older daughter is now in middle school at GALS. When she received her acceptance into the school I cried. Granted, being the founder, the enrollment policies dictate that she be automatically accepted amidst a competitive lottery process, but still, I cried. I cried for the decade that I struggled to keep this venture alive and still lack enough resources to scale. I cried because building a public school is not for the faint of heart. At 40 years of age, when I unknowingly jumped into the provincial highly political realm of charter vs. non-charter public school development in Denver, I experienced every emotion on the spectrum. I was moved from humiliation and defeat, to intense determination and ambition, to love and devotion to the families and the children from unbelievably disparate backgrounds, who have hallowed the halls of our existence.
Now, a half year in to her first school year at GALS Denver, my daughter prances home donning a varsity jacket. She is on our competitive acapella team, ala Pitch Perfect. At GALS, voice is movement, voice is agency, voice is everything be it mindful or vocal. We lift up voice at our schools when we say ‘Hear my pride, my GALS pride, because it is fierce. I will take my space!’
Yet, we can’t find anyone to compete with vocally, so the team which is made up of girls in grades 6-12, practice and perform and practice and perform and sooner or later, we will figure out the competitive piece. Still, they get varsity jackets. My daughter is one of two students in 6th grade who made the team. She can sing!
When my daughter was an infant I received advice from one of my sisters-in-law, which was to always buy at least one baby size clothing larger than necessary due to how fast babies can grow. 11 years later and I tend to still practice this retail habit, though now as a feminist action as to not allow my children to buy into the consumer assumptions of tighter is better for girls, so my daughter’s varsity jacket is a tad more than slightly too big for her.
And we are out to dinner with another family member on the day she received her varsity jacket and he says to her ‘Cool, it looks like you are wearing your boyfriend’s jacket.’ AND MY HEAD EXPLODES AND MY HEART STARTS PUMPING TOO FAST. I hold my breath and look hard into the faces of both my daughters to see if they have registered this comment or my reaction, and all I see is them putting ketchup on their hamburgers and fries. In my head, I have instantaneously hurdled over the table to this family member, grabbed him by the collar, thrown him against the wall yelling at the top of my lungs with a voice groaning from deep in my gut ‘ARE YOU KIDDING ME? She earned this jacket and she earned it as a 6th grader. You WILL give her the respect she deserves. She does not don a jacket via the grace of a boy. Do not ever diminish the achievements of my daughter!’
Of course, I didn’t go cray-cray on this family member, but I did quickly and out loud clearly enough so that both of my daughters heard me and hopefully took it in – I articulately expressed my pride, my GALS pride because it is fierce, in my daughter’s accomplishments, which earned her a varsity jacket at 11 years old.
People ask me all the time where GALS came from. My answers to that question continue to evolve. I know that it came from the generations of pain of our gender that was born with me when I entered this world though it took nearly 40 years for me to find the avenue of education to embody it; and it comes from my deep respect for the legacy of the women known and unknown who came before me trailblazing the path to clarity for so many women in my generation, the #metoo generation. GALS comes from trauma and deep feminine love; both of which I feel everyday living on the surface of my skin.
GALS came from the deep knowledge welled up inside me that the educational opportunities for girls in America are woefully insufficient to match the reality of growing up in today’s world. Most know now that the potential of girls is untapped but that hasn’t necessarily lead to systems change, has it? With absolutely no real experience as educators and complete ignorance about the monolith that is the public education system, my partner in this venture and I set out to create a game-changing educational model focused on positive gender identity and integrated movement. And we have! And we are fiercely committed to continuing to serve all daughters, irrespective of backgrounds, across our country.
About The Author
Feminism is at the core of GALS Inc., as is the belief in equal rights, physical well-being, and emotional safety for all. When Liz Wolfson created the vision for the Girls Athletic Leadership Schools eight years ago, she raised over half a million dollars in angel funding, developed the strategic plan and moved to Colorado to open the flagship schools in Denver. The middle school there now serves approximately 360 families in grades 6-8, and the GALS Denver High School serves over 150 families in grades 9 through 12. Their newest school, GALS Los Angeles, opened in the fall of 2016 and serves over 220 families in grades 6 and 7. Their next two sites are on track to open in 2020.