College freshman Deivis Baez thought about joining a health club
this fall, but instead he decided to stick with his old gym, the
one at South Bronx High in New York City. For four years Baez
had been in the school's daily fitness class, and for three
years he had been a key member of the fitness team, which
competes in exercises such as pull-ups, push-ups, sit-ups,
jumping and running. Over the last decade South Bronx High's
fitness teams have been among the best in the country.
Baez, who graduated from South Bronx in June, is taking classes
at Hostos Community College, also in the Bronx, and is in a job
placement program. But several days a week at 7 a.m. he returns
to his old school to work out and help students train. The
fitness program helped keep him from dropping out of high
school, says the burly, 6'2" Baez, who emigrated from the
Dominican Republic with his family 10 years ago. "I was really
shy, and my mother was scared I wouldn't want to come to school.
On the fitness team I learned self-confidence and how to push
On this early morning in the South Bronx gym, Lou Schlanger is
leading a class of teenagers who are trying to master a push-up
of the literal sort. Schlanger, the school's dean and athletic
director as well as the coach of the fitness team, explains that
everyone is expected to try a "real" push-up--in other words, no
knees on the floor. Across the gym, senior Alex Sanabria, who is
in his fourth year under Schlanger's tutelage, is gearing up to
challenge the class record of 207 push-ups.
"We have to set the mentality that everyone here can get into
shape," Schlanger tells the group. "Not everyone is going to be
an Olympic athlete, not everyone is even going to make the
fitness team, but everyone can get in shape."
The gym's lemon-yellow walls are dotted with motivational signs:
NO ONE IS A FAILURE WHO KEEPS ON TRYING and tODAY'S PREPARATION
DETERMINES TOMORROW'S ACHIEVEMENT and IF YOU BELIEVE IT, YOU CAN
ACHIEVE IT. But the decorations that really motivate these high
schoolers to get to the gym every weekday by 7 a.m. (school
doesn't start until 8:15) are the 34 plum-and-gold banners that
celebrate South Bronx High's athletic successes. Sixteen of the
banners belong to the school's fitness team. One, won by the
boys' squad, reads 1995 U.S.A. NATIONAL CHAMPIONS. This year's
fitness team will be culled from the group of 87 working out in
the morning class.
Schlanger, 40, an energetic Bronx native with a slight build and
a bushy mustache, started the fitness program 11 years ago. As a
physical education major at Lehman College, also in the Bronx,
he got into the habit of running, biking and doing sit-ups.
Then, as a student teacher at Alfred E. Smith High in the Bronx,
Schlanger helped out with the fitness team. When he got a job at
South Bronx High (after a short detour to Bloomingdale's
department store, where he was an assistant buyer in bedding) he
decided to start a physical fitness program there.
With only 1,000 students, South Bronx High, which is housed in a
60-year-old former elementary school, is the smallest
nonspecialized public school in New York City. The fitness
program began small too: 10 boys and one girl showed up to work
out when Schlanger started the group in February 1985. Within
two years the number had grown to 100, where it has hovered ever
since. The hourlong morning session, which students can take
instead of a phys-ed period, provides a pool from which the
fitness team is chosen. That group then does additional work
after school and competes in local meets throughout the spring.
Its ultimate goal is the national championships in May.
"Lou started off saying, 'I'm going to do a little personal
fitness. Does anybody want to join me?'" says Regina Adoff, who
has worked in the school's guidance department for 16 years.
"Before long, we're the Number 1 school in the country."
In 1995 the South Bronx boys' squad earned that distinction at
the Youth Physical Fitness National Championships, which are
sponsored by the Marine Corps Youth Foundation and held at the
Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego. (A weekend there,
bunking in the barracks and dining in the mess halls, has been
enough to convince some students not to enlist after
graduation.) At the nationals, teams of six compete to finish
100 sit-ups, 60 push-ups and 30 pull-ups, each within a
two-minute time limit, and also square off in the standing broad
jump and a 300-yard shuttle run. The low individual score in
each event is dropped, and the other five are totaled for the
team score. Last May the South Bronx girls surprised everyone
with a fifth-place finish. The boys were devastated when they
placed fourth; they had hoped to defend their title.
Schlanger is optimistic about his boys' prospects for another
title next year. Meanwhile the South Bronx team has become known
at the nationals for more than being competitive. "To me,
they're always the most well-behaved kids out here," Bethpage
(N.Y.) High coach Michael Fenster said at last spring's meet.
"They're fantastic. They have so much spirit and drive." Even
so, their inner-city neighborhood has such a poor reputation
that it took Fenster three years to convince Bethpage High's
administration that it was safe to take his team to the annual
meet hosted by South Bronx. "We're only 20 miles from each
other, but it's not the same world," says Fenster.
"Most of the schools that bring teams out here are suburban,"
says Marine master sergeant Ray Tademy, who oversees the
nationals. "What Lou has done is make fitness relevant to life
for his students. It's unusual to see that at a school in the
inner city. And they don't have the money of a Bethpage, so
they've got to be creative."
Schlanger has raised nearly all the money for his team's
equipment (which now includes rowing machines and stair
climbers) by soliciting grants from Citibank, IBM and Xerox. The
team also gets funding from a social service agency called
Better Bronx for Youth, which considers the team a
Tademy agrees that fitness programs can help reduce teenage
pregnancy as well as other problems that adolescents run into.
"If you're working out and taking care of your body, you're
going to develop perseverance, confidence and self-respect,"
says Tademy, a marathoner. "Lou's program is a testament to how
that works with kids. It's an empowerment issue. Your body
doesn't become physically fit unless you take responsibility.
They learn to say no to drugs and other things that are going
on--to say, 'Doggone, I worked hard to get my body fit, and you
want me to mess it up?'"
Sound minds are encouraged along with sound bodies. Passing
grades are required for the San Diego trip, and college plans,
although not mandatory, are the unspoken rule on the South Bronx
team. "Coach Schlanger is always asking people if they're going
to college," Baez says. "It's like a tradition."
Schlanger estimates that "way more than 90 percent" of the
fitness team members go on to college. Says Adoff, "So many of
our kids who are successful and graduated from college were in
this program and influenced by Lou. He gets the National Honor
Society kids and the dropout-material kids. I've seen kids who
are doing badly in school change their study habits because they
learn discipline. It takes discipline to get up that early."
The dean's tiny office, to which Schlanger--still wearing
sweatpants but now toting a walkie-talkie in a hip
holster--heads after fitness class, is crowded with testimonials
to the good times and the success his teams have had. There are
photos of the students at Universal Studios and on the beach in
San Diego. Stapled to the bulletin board is a letter that one
student, Thomas Metts, gave Schlanger at graduation seven years
I may not have the heart to let you know how I truly feel,
because I may break down and cry and through physical fitness I
learned to be tough. In personal fitness, I got friends, true
friends that pushed me and stuck with me. One of those friends
was the teacher. Teachers come and go, but you stayed in my
heart. Honestly, Thomas.
P.S. God put you in this school to make a difference in our
hearts. With your knowledge and wisdom, you did!!!
Metts is still getting up early for class. He is a math teacher
at Alexander Burger Junior High, 15 blocks from South Bronx