Sitting on the carpeted floor of a Lower School cozy room eating orange slices and mini bagels, a group of 15 girls discusses empathy and honoring the light in others.

“I saw the light in two people yesterday,” Tallie Signorello says. “My brother. We were home alone, and we just started talking and telling jokes. It was nice. And I saw the light in Hanna because she organized the library in our classroom and she didn’t complain about it.”

“My brother made me breakfast,” Nyah Gollapudi chimes in. “Instead of just playing his Xbox.”

It’s not Meeting for Worship or Friendship Group, but both of those influences, woven throughout the Lower School experience, are reflected in the overheard discussion. The 15 girls, grades 3-5, are runners. And thinkers. And supportive friends. They are Girls on the Run.

Fifth grade teachers Sarah Black (left) and Whitney Kerner coach 15 Girls on the Run. “We’re both runners,” Kerner said. “We get excited about going out running with the girls. They even like running in the rain.”

Girls on the Run is a national program that encourages girls empowerment by teaching life skills and running. A curriculum of discussions, activities and running games is designed to foster confidence and an appreciation for health and fitness.

Penn Charter has hosted a chapter of Girls on the Run since 2016, filled to capacity each season. This year, fifth grade teachers Sarah Black and Whitney Kerner are the coaches.

“I have to admit one of the coolest things this year is working with Whitney,” Black said. “And this group of girls—this neat team—is so energetic. It’s not like they had to try out or like they are the best runners, but they bring this energy.”

The girls, ages 8-11, welcome the opportunity to make connections across grades. And their coaches appreciate getting to know the younger girls.

When the girls head outside, they warm up with a jog and
stretch with yoga poses before doing laps on the track or
running around campus.

“We know they’re going to be our students one day,” Kerner said. “It’s an investment in a relationship that can only grow from there.”

Over the course of a 10-week program, Black and Kerner lead the girls through a curriculum that teaches them how to “activate your star power,” use their voices, and be empathetic friends. They begin each Tuesday and Thursday after school in the fifth grade cozy room with healthy snacks and conversation. This year they have been joined by fellow coach Sarah Leonard, a law student, and Upper School student-athletes who enjoy mentoring the younger girls.

“Before I got trained I didn’t realize how curricular it is—teaching the girls how to empower themselves and others,” Kerner said.

The 21 lessons cover themes like competence, confidence, putting yourselves in someone else’s shoes, connection, character and caring.

Running is a teaching tool for all of that. Once outside, Black said, “they take that lesson with them, talk to their partner after a lap. It’s a way to remind yourself that you are a good runner, a good person.”

Because Kerner and Black know the bolstering power of positive feedback, at the end of each practice, they acknowledge a runner with an energy award. Who cheered someone on, showed the most positive energy, or helped someone else? That girl receives the energy award and is treated to the Peel Banana cheer by her peers: Peel banana, chop banana, mash banana, go bananas!

The annual culmination of Girls on the Run is a 5K run at the Navy Yard in December. To reach that goal, the girls build on their skills each week: They increase their running time and use what they learned in practices to build up to the 5K.

Last year's Girls on the Run squad marked the end of their
journey by running a joyful and noncompetitive 5K at the
Philadelphia Navy Yard, an annual event.

Although running is an individual sport, so much of Girls on the Run is about community that it feels natural that participants run the 5K with a buddy—someone from their orbit, like a family member, a friend or an Upper School athlete.

After the girls wrap up inside, filling water bottles and putting food scraps in the compost bin, they move out to the track. It’s Stella’s turn to do a warm-up. On a sunny fall day, they jog for a few minutes and then get down on the turf to do bicycle legs and yoga poses like Pigeon and Downward-Facing Dog.

Next, the girls partner up. Each one picks a “situation card” that outlines a particular scenario. Of the three suggested ways to respond to show empathy, the girls choose one and discuss it with their partners as they run a lap. Black and Kerner hand them a new card for each lap. The girls often start off running and then slow to a walk as they dig into the conversation.

More than just running, Girls on the Run “teaches you different things,” Sydney Albertini, a third grader said, “like how to care for other people and how to care for yourself.”

“I like Girls on the Run,” fourth grader Hanna Liharik agreed, “because it’s not just straight running. We always think about something, which is easier.”

Does she feel like the program has helped grow her confidence?

“Before Girls on the Run,” she said, “I used to think I was a slow runner and I didn’t love running. Now I think it’s really fun.”