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.