Undergraduate offers empowerment classes for girls at three Santa Cruz middle schools

Johanna Wise-Levine. Photo by Jennifer McNulty.

In a unique town-gown collaboration, a UCSC undergraduate has teamed up with the Santa Cruz County Office of Education to offer empowerment classes to girls at three local middle schools.

Johanna Wise-Levine, a senior majoring in community studies at UCSC, introduced a girls' health and wellness program developed at Harvard Medical School for local girls. Last fall, girls in grades six through eight at Mission Hill, Branciforte, and Shoreline Middle Schools enrolled in the semester-long, after-school program called "Full of Ourselves" (FOO).

The class was offered through Healthy Girls Santa Cruz, a program conceived by Wise-Levine that provides year-round services to support girls' healthy development. "There are a lot of mean girls and put-downs, and junior high is the worst," said Jo Ann Allen, director of student support services for the Santa Cruz County Office of Education (SCCOE).

Allen likes the FOO curriculum because it focuses on improving girls' self-image, with an emphasis on developing positive coping skills, healthier eating and exercise habits, and teaching girls leadership skills. "I liked the subtlety of the approach," said Allen, who calls the middle school years "a really important developmental stage."

"It's a lot like early childhood in terms of the cognitive development going on. They want to fit in, to be liked, and they're trying to figure out who they are," she said, adding that contrary to popular belief, children ages 11-15 need as much guidance as preschoolers.

Developed at Harvard as an eating-disorder prevention program, the goal of the FOO curriculum is to build self-esteem by helping girls develop communication and leadership skills. "Relationships are vital to girls, especially at this age," said Wise-Levine. "School is all about academics, but there are other important types of learning that take place in early adolescence." FOO helps girls learn skills essential to becoming a healthy adult, including communication and assertiveness, she said.

In addition, the curriculum covers media literacy training, so girls can become critical consumers of media images of girls and women, and it encourages healthy eating and exercise habits as part of an overall focus on health and well-being. "Eating disorders are one end of a spectrum of problematic body image and eating issues for girls," said Wise-Levine, who cited statistics that underscore the need to address the issues:

. Sixty percent of teen girls are on a diet

. Preteen girls are more afraid of fat than cancer

. Forty-five percent of women who smoke say they use it as a form of weight control

"All girls struggle with body dissatisfaction, whether they're fat, thin, or in between," said Wise-Levine, adding that 43 percent of normal-weight 13-year-old girls are trying to lose weight. Many girls subscribe to the "myth of a malleable body," rather than accept themselves as they are. "They learn it from adults," she added, noting that Americans spend $50 billion annually on diet and weight-loss products.

Poor self-esteem is the root cause of many problems faced by girls in the county's support programs, said Allen, who hopes programs like FOO will reach girls before they make bad choices. "It's so clear--if you feel good about yourself, you can conquer the world. But a lot of girls in our society need help getting to that point," she said.

The original FOO curriculum was tested in 24 schools in the Northeast, where participating students showed increased body image, body satisfaction, and self-esteem after taking the class, according to Wise-Levine. The curriculum includes art activities, role playing, discussion, yoga, and guided meditation. Wise-Levine expanded the yoga component for the Santa Cruz program, and many students told her the class was the one part of the week they looked forward to.

"They really appreciated having a space just for girls, where they felt safe to express their feelings and be who they are," said Wise-Levine, adding that the challenges facing girls include grappling with the need to fit in, stress about schoolwork, concerns about being judged, boys, cliques, and their relationships with family members and other girls.

Yoga offered physical benefits and boosted the girls' "sense of personal power," according to Wise-Levine, 27, a yoga instructor and former outdoor educator. "Yoga helps people cope with emotions by learning to be mindful," she said. "It helps people become aware of the thoughts, feelings, and sensations that come up as they're doing the postures, and they can learn to allow, honor, and recognize those feelings." Wise-Levine was impressed by how readily her students embraced those lessons. "I had girls tell me that they are now able to notice their feelings and think about how to act most appropriately in response to those feelings, not just in yoga but in their lives. That's what mindfulness is all about."

Wise-Levine earned academic credit for teaching the classes, and the project satisfied the six-month field-study required of all community studies majors at UCSC. Working with middle-school girls was rewarding, even when it was challenging, she said. "My sense of strength and self-worth increased as I was trying to guide these girls in developing their own sense of agency and power," she said.

For Allen, working with Wise-Levine has been a joy. "I've had interns before, but they've all worked within my existing programs," she said. "This was the first time a student came to me with a proposal for her own project. She'd been searching for a way to bring this program to students. She has a passion for this work."