LA’s first all-girls charter school is still looking for a few good GALS
Mike Szymanski | July 21, 2016
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On a weekend when she has nothing to do, Carrie Wagner may climb 10 miles up the 10,000-foot summit of Mount Baldy. She has already conquered two 19,000-foot volcanoes.
But now, at 41, this surfer, skier, adventurer and educator is facing a unique career challenge as the executive director of the first all-girls charter middle school in the second-largest school district in the country. On Aug. 4, she will be introducing parents and students to the Girls Athletic Leadership School of Los Angeles when they will first be able to tour their school facilities at LA Unified two weeks before school begins.
Until then, Wagner has about two dozen more seats to fill to reach the capacity of 125 sixth-grade girls and is handing out flyers to prospective families at a San Fernando Valley Walmart and introducing herself and the school at local community events.
“It’s a unique opportunity for Los Angeles and the area,” Wagner said. “We want them to know that it is possible to be happy in middle school. They come in as little girls and leave as fine young women.”
GALS is the first single-gender charter school to open at LA Unified, and the staff has worked closely with Liz Hicks, who is opening an all-girls traditional school called GALA, the Girls Academy Leadership Academy, which is also looking for new recruits for the coming school year. A year from now, the district plans to open an all-boys school at Washington Preparatory High School.
So far, the population of GALS is predominantly Latina (about 80 to 85 percent), and 70 percent are low income, with more than half coming from the Panorama City area, where the school is sharing facilities with Vista Middle School.
The student population hails from Sherman Oaks, Valley Village, Pacoima, Chatsworth, Granada Hills and only a few from over the hill outside the Valley.
“We were looking for a new middle school option, so we are happy to see this as an alternative and we’re going to give it a try,” said Julie Nugent of Granada Hills, who said she hopes her 11-year-old daughter, Sophie, will thrive with the new experiences offered at GALS. As a Girl Scout she is already comfortable in single-gender settings.
“Sure, Sophie likes boys, and we will keep boys in her life after the start of the new school year, and she is athletic too, and we want her to keep up with soccer, which she really enjoys,” Nugent said. “My daughter has leadership tendencies and she can continue to become better, not shrink. This is an age in middle school where some girls lose their voice.”
Wagner said that as adolescence approaches, girls will pause to think first in classroom situations while boys will throw up their hands and get called on more frequently.
“It is a different kind of competitiveness without boys around, and there is a strong development of sisterhood,” Wagner explained, saying that she was enamored by the Denver GALS campus that opened five years ago and now ranks as one of the top public schools in the area. Wagner served as the chief operating officer of the Bright Star Schools charter management organization that operates five high-performing schools in Los Angeles. She also worked at ExEd, the nonprofit provider of management services for nearly 80 LA schools.
GALS will share space with a traditional school but will start earlier and end half an hour later, so the students will hardly mix. GALS will co-locate in six classrooms on the campus and have lunches and bell schedules that are different from the rest of the school.
The school has five female teachers and one male teacher — one who feels comfortable having a box of tampons in his desk, Wagner notes. The office manager is a CrossFit expert, and the principal, Vanessa Garza, plans to join in each morning’s exercises with the students.
The girls don’t have to be athletic to join, and students in wheelchairs can also participate in the movement activities. The board of directors has also figured out how to accommodate transgender students.
If a girl identifies as a boy the student can remain in the school but may eventually want to go to a co-ed school, and a male student that identifies as a girl can join the school, Wagner said.
The school has a budget of $1.3 million in its first year and plans to have its own facilities in three to four years. Wagner said there are plans not only to start a high school for the girls to matriculate to after they finish at GALS, but also to start an all-boys school in upcoming years at LA Unified.
During the day the girls will exercise with 40 minutes of movement in sessions including cardio and circuit training, yoga and health classes. They may take “brain breaks” for a few minutes out of class time, to do a “fraction dance,” for example, where they shout out math terms.
“We are ultimately helping them with self confidence,” Wagner said.
Although this presidential campaign makes the young girls aware that a woman can become president, Wagner found that some of the new students are fearful of Donald Trump. “There is a fear by some of the girls that things will be scary for them if Donald Trump becomes president” because of his comments in the past about women, Wagner said.
“Girls can be brutal too, and they can be bullies, but if they are in the same setting, they are less likely to be,” Wagner said. She also pointed to studies that show that girls who are active athletes are less likely to be sexually active and become pregnant.
Wagner isn’t too worried about filling the vacant spaces before school starts. Neighboring charter schools have waiting lists in the hundreds.
“We are excited about opening and trying something different for the area,” Wagner said. “We are now feverishly trying to spread the word and let people know we are here.”