Even unathletic kids enjoy phys ed at California's San Rafael High. It has the country's most celebrated program, with 45 courses ranging from yoga to yachting, from rock-climbing to kayaking
November 15, 1976

San Rafael High School looks like the sort of place where old-fashioned physical education classes would be a staple. The building has a broad facade with high pillars and a long flight of steps leading to its entrance. The gym is gloomy, with wooden basketball backboards. But what is this? There is a coed volleyball game in progress. Outside, another group of boys and girls is scaling the gym wall in a rock-climbing class. And half a mile away other students are sailing in a canal.

This is a typical day of P.E. in San Rafael, a bedroom community of 44,000 situated 14 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge. It has the country's most celebrated high school physical education program, one that offers 45 electives ranging from football to Frisbee, from team handball to tumbling, from tai chi chaun to boxing to yoga to self-defense. All classes are open to both sexes, and there is only the vaguest of dress codes. Even traditional educators are fascinated by all this, mainly because San Rafael High is accomplishing what every school would like to: not only is it offering the athletically gifted child a wide choice of activities, it is turning would-be spectators into athletes.

This does not happen everywhere. Twenty years of Presidents' fitness councils and the growth of women's sports and Jogging for Life notwithstanding, the U.S. is still mostly a nation of fans. According to every respected survey on the subject, the majority of adult Americans do no regular exercise except walking. Meanwhile, deaths from cardiovascular diseases, which doctors have linked to sedentary life-styles, continue to mount.

Tomorrow's heart patients are not graduating from San Rafael High. "There's a carry-over effect," says John Donovan, assistant principal in charge of curriculum. "People who took scuba diving here are taking advanced courses elsewhere. Bikers and backpackers organize their own trips, and sailors continue sailing in college."

There are a number of reasons why San Rafael's P.E. program is so successful. Many students point to the relaxed dress code. Do clothes really matter as long as good courses are offered? "Yes," chorus four girls at sailing class. "My sister in junior high school hates P.E.," says junior Joanne Ashcroft. "Every day she comes home and throws her gym clothes on the bed." Students speak of gym uniforms as "monkey suits" and "prison garb," and describe the process of donning them—or "dressing out"—as torture. At San Rafael, shorts, sneakers and shirts are expected in most classes, but anything close will do.

"I found long ago that kids would come up with any excuse for not exercising, but it usually concerned dress," says Gym Instructor Bill Monti. "They didn't like to dress out because they were ashamed of their bodies. Legally, you can't impose a dress code unless you provide the uniforms, but I bet 90% of the schools in California have one anyway. It shouldn't be based on something so artificial, especially now, when kids see dress as a way of expressing themselves."

The San Rafael dress code was liberalized in 1970, three years before the school combined its men's and women's P.E. departments under a gym specialist named Marcia Arevalo. Previously, the departments had peered at each other across a sex gap as formidable as a gator-filled moat. When they fused and classes went coed, tensions eased.

To get the students as relaxed as the teachers, Monti and Arevalo prepared a questionnaire listing 99 possible P.E. courses, including boccie, yoga, fly-casting and even spectator sports. The boys voted heavily for activities like scuba diving; the girls leaned toward horseback riding, archery and tennis. The five-woman, six-man P.E. department has been adding electives ever since.

"People ask me how we can teach 45 sports with a budget of $6,000," Arevalo says. "We try to be creative. At first, we begged, borrowed and stole. Outsiders offered help, and teachers went to clinics. Some groups gave us equipment such as boats. Fencing and scuba equipment, which is expensive, we split with our sister school, Terra Linda, which has about the same number of electives under a more traditional format."

Most students are required to take one 55-minute P.E. course a day. In the ninth grade there is a core program in which pupils learn basic team games, develop coordination and agility through individual sports, and find out about their bodily capabilities through tests. Electives start in the 10th grade. There are semester-long courses in gymnastics, rock-climbing, sailing and modern dance, and six-week programs in other areas. Grading is 60% on attendance and participation. There are few failures.

The most dramatic successes often have been pupils who had been considered unathletic. "I'm probably the least competitive member of my family, but I take volleyball twice a day," says one coed. "It takes my mind off everything." A classmate, breathing easily after a rock-climbing drill in which he clambered up a 15-foot wall using just knobs, ledges, rocks and sidewalls—but no ropes—said, "I only do competitive sports for fun. I hunt and fish most of the time, and rock-climbing seems to go along."

While most electives strain the muscles, others, such as Frisbee, strain credulity. "Frisbee can be taught," says Arevalo. "We make it interesting by creating golf courses. There are skills involved, and, of course, it's a lifetime sport. We're interested in the whole person."

By every significant criterion—skills, teamwork, self-control, sex roles—rock-climbing is probably the most interesting course. "We originally drew people who didn't want to be involved with team sports," says Monti, a San Rafael graduate who started the course upon his return as a teacher in 1963. "In fact, it's more of a team sport than any other because it can involve life and death. It teaches stress and responsibility."

Monti has since branched out into sailing, and rock-climbing now is taught by Bill Ranney, who squeezes in his classes when he is not coaching the swim team, climbing mountains, taking pictures and training for walking races. "We have almost as many girls as boys now," he said. "At first there were just boys. I tried to recruit girls with a poster showing you can do it and still be cute. It's important to have girls, because they're more flexible."

As Ranney spoke, a coed was casually dangling from a rope halfway up the 30-foot gym wall. She was a member of Ranney's advanced class, which on that day had been told to work on direct-aid climbing, rappelling and traversing. The students not only understood the terms but also knew how to perform the maneuvers, because they had studied about them for 4½ months before attempting them. Now they climb local slopes and gym walls, and on rainy days use a simulated slope in the wrestling room.

"I go to a camp where they do a little rock-climbing, but nothing like this," said the girl. "We do mountaineering, rescue work and first aid. It's really safe, if you go by the rules. You need strength, agility and flexibility.

"I've taken two semesters of sailing and two of rock-climbing, and I may get into scuba diving. I also take volleyball, Softball and badminton. These courses may not help my studies, but they're too good to pass up. San Rafael is the best thing that ever happened to P.E."

And the 23 varsity teams are not suffering because of it. "One program doesn't rule out another," says Basketball Coach Mike Diaz. "We had 353 of our 2,009 students out for extramural sports in 1972; that has increased to about 500 now." According to Football Coach Bob Muster, the fact that he has lost only half a dozen players to injuries during the last three years is the result of his players' P.E. sessions in weights and aerobic running during the off-season.

The major change in extramurals—coed teams—is less related to P.E. than to Title IX. Yet it somehow seems appropriate that, in addition to several girls on the boys' swim and tennis teams, there has been a female wrestler at San Rafael. A junior varsity regular at 127 pounds last year, Dana McCoy lost the six matches she wrestled (three others were forfeited to her), but surprised almost everyone by surviving every first period—and three entire matches—without being pinned. She also made points by being, in Arevalo's words, "tall, slender and very attractive—not the way you might picture a female wrestler."

It would be heady indeed to leave San Rafael on the quintessentially reformist idea of coed wrestling, but that would ignore some problems. Teachers who have undergone traditional training elsewhere have complaints about the free-form decision-making at the school. The scuba program once was suspended when the equipment was stolen. And most distressing to the physical education department, despite the excellence of its program, even San Rafael has not been able to eliminate all the old objections to mandatory gym classes. The school board last year used a local-option clause in a new state law to make P.E. optional for juniors and seniors.

The law was designed to force schools to improve unsatisfactory P.E. programs, to make their gym classes attractive enough so that students will attend voluntarily. Critics of the law fear that physical education programs may be dropped as economy measures instead. Whether good programs will also suffer is problematical. Forty-two percent of the seniors at San Rafael quit P.E. when the course was made optional for them on an experimental basis. However, Arevalo points out, "A lot of students told me they liked P.E., but they wanted half days in school. Although we could have lost potentially 500 or 600 students when the new law came to pass, we only lost 100."

Defenders of the law point to an Oregon study demonstrating that good P.E. programs will maintain their enrollments after an initial drop-off. This only begs the question of whether P.E. should be optional in the first place. Should English and math be optional when they are poorly taught?

Some San Rafael school board members argued that P.E. is not a lifetime requirement and that kids 16 to 18 stay in shape on their own. Rebutting for the minority, board member Gale Fisher said, "This is the last chance to get children involved for life in physical education. The physicians on the President's council agreed unanimously that kids should take P.E. all the way through school. It's wonderful to educate a marvelous brain, but if that brain is in a dead body at age 40, it isn't doing much good."