By Kate Cebik
Development Associate

I was not what one would call a sports star. In fact, I will confess that, as a high school student,  I cringed at the words “physical education.” I dreaded it to the point that I was absolutely thrilled by a diagnosis of mono in my freshman year–this came with a doctor’s note excusing me from gym for the remainder of the semester.

A trainer and high school student do air pushups on the TRX machine in the weight room at the JCC.

Senior Kathiana Torres does TRX with JCC trainer Mike Wolf.

Common Ground’s phys ed teacher, Jon Carney, gets that. He gets that while we have some very strong athletes at Common Ground, not every student is cut out for varsity-level sports.

While Common Ground, as a public charter school, is accountable to the Next Generation Accountability System from the CT State Department of Education for all indicators–including physical fitness–Mr. Carney has additional goals for his students that resonate much deeper with this reformed gym-hater:

My goal is to instill in these kids a lifelong interest in physical fitness and health, one that continues and grows after they leave Common Ground.

While that goal is not something easily measured by something like the state’s 4-stage test of flexibility, cardio endurance, 90 degree pushups and curl ups, finding what works for an individual is sort of Common Ground’s way. And that is one of the main reasons Mr. Carney decided to take on the immense project of a Jewish Community Center (JCC) Takeover.

A high school student wearing boxing gloves works out during a strike class by hitting a punching bag.

Junior Dean Romblad during the Strike workout.

We are fortunate that Mr. Carney is both our physical education teacher and a trainer at the JCC. This serendipitous link, and a lot of hard work and great partnering, made the day possible.

In the past, Common Ground held a physical fitness fair highlighting opportunities for fitness and careers in the field. But this year, Mr. Carney wanted to take the students off-site, to let field-trip type excitement fuel the day.  “I wanted the students to have exposure to a positive community center, one that isn’t far outside their community [the JCC is accessible by city busses] but that they may not have found on their own. And I wanted them to have the opportunity to try activities that they might not have tried without the takeover.”

Rows of students stand on yoga mats and hold foam rollers over their heads during a class in flexibility at the JCC.

Students use foam rollers for enhanced stretching.

The students most definitely had numerous opportunities. In a single day, students attended twelve different sessions focusing on health and fitness. The day kicked off with the whole school in the JCC auditorium. Faculty and staff joined in, donning stretch pants and tanks  and sweats and sneakers. There was admittedly no shortage of neon. Together, the students watched a portion of the documentary series Chef’s Table that examined the intersection of agriculture, nutrition and ecology through the plate of food.

Then, broken into guidance groups, the students and staff followed a rigorous schedule that included exercise sessions like TRX Suspension Training, form with free weights, cardio, spin (exercise bikes), strike (boxing with gloves and bags), flexibility with foam rollers, meditation, boot camp (push ups, muscle conditioning, balance balls), and racquetball. Students also attended an educational discussion on nutrition and body image, as well as a sugar interactive where students were challenged to estimate the number of sugar cubes contained within a variety of foods.

Students and a teacher exercise bikes during a spin class at the JCC.

Social Sciences teacher Mr. Richards (back row) keeps his guidance students pumped during spin class by demonstrating his killer air guitar.

Each session was under twenty minutes, providing a nice introduction with a low intimidation level. Even as a current JCC member (I told you I was reformed!) I hadn’t yet had the courage to try out a Spin class, but was able to join in with a handful of students and staff and found it to be surprisingly fun. Encouragement from trainer Dave and the  Prince-dedicated soundtrack certainly helped out.

In this session, I got to see students ranging from members of our bike team to how does this thing work participating together. Mr. Richards provided ample encouragement and performed some wicked air guitar while pedaling. And in the end, we even earned an encore track–Led Zeppelin, by student request.

Special Education teacher Dan Bianchini leads students in guided meditation, visualization, and relaxation.

Special Education teacher Dan Bianchini leads students in guided meditation, visualization, and relaxation.

Throughout the day, I witnessed students discovering that things weren’t as intimidating as they appeared. For example, that TRX machine looks like it could be some sort of torture device. But with some simple guidance from trainer Mike, we all figured it out. As a group, we found the squats and curls and rows doable. No one in our group selected push ups as a favorite (I have to agree there), but we were all proud to make it through the set!

Why was this important? As Mr. Carney said, “My content area [physical education] is the most important one here.” With a smile, he adds, “That’s the way every teacher should think.” (I’ll let our many teachers who believe the same take up this debate!) I personally believe it is important for every teacher to feel that way, and to use that to fuel creative ways to engage the students. I know that it is the teachers who believe this the most that remain my big influencers in my life to this day.

At the end of this long day, I think we can definitely count this as a positive experience, in line with both the state’s fitness goals and Mr. Carney’s goal to help students find ways that health and fitness can work into their lives. He tells me:

My desired outcome was that they’d have a positive experience, one that would allow them to find value in health and wellness and in this nearby safe place [the JCC].”

As with any new undertaking, there are lessons learned for the future (site maps for all to help during transition times, quick fuel like bananas or maybe even sports drinks readily available), but hopefully it is something that can become a tradition. Because there is nothing quite like seeing a kid who has never seen a racquetball court nail a shot and smile. Opportunities like these that can reach the kid who connected fitness with judgment and failure, and allow her to discover something possible within herself. This kid grew up to eventually find her place in the worlds of hiking and Zumba and weights, to have a JCC membership of her own. After the takeover, a handful of students became members, and many more opened the door to health and allowed themselves to peer through.

Many, many thanks to Jon Carney, Personal Trainer at the JCC and Common Ground Physical Education Teacher for all the coordination, scheduling, and power being this, and to the whole JCC crew who made this amazing experience possible:

  • Pam Hutchinson, Personal Trainer & Health Coach
  • Jess Ciola, Personal Trainer & Assistant Fitness Director
  • Mike Wolf, Personal Trainer
  • Cochi Shavit, Personal Trainer
  • Patrick Raymond, Personal Trainer
  • Dave Koch, Certified Spin Teacher
  • Terry Tully, Personal Trainer & Fitness Center Supervisor
  • Beth Harrison,Personal Trainer & Health Coach
  • Sheila Schrier, Fitness Staff
  • Alex Lagase, Personal Trainer
  • Susan Donovan, Director of Fitness Services