"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 Beth-page, 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 pregnancy-prevention program.
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 ago:
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 High.