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 myself."
On this early morning in the South Bronx gym, Lou Schlanger is leading a class of teenagers who are trying to master a pushup 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" pushup—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.