Originally published March 6, 2019 in the Zip06News.

By Pam Johnson

He’s the star of Fitness Fridays, the mind behind some stellar physical education grants, the father of an annual family fitness fundraiser, and the ringmaster of a circus-based student experience. Suffice it say, physical education teacher Derek DeLucia puts the fun in fitness at Melissa Jones Elementary School (MJS).

Now in his sixth year at MJS, Derek (also known as “Coach D”) started making a splash at the school by instituting Fitness Fridays five years ago, using a grant he wrote and received from Guilford Fund for Education (GFFE).

Photo by Pam Johnson

“When I presented Fitness Friday to the GFFE, I went for the grant because I wanted to get exercise in every classroom, as much as I can,” says Derek. “I presented a bunch of articles that showed them what fitness and exercise can do for the adolescent brain. It actually helps them in learning. Along with that, I also wrote the grant for FitDeck fitness cards give to every single teacher, because we always strive for fitness breaks here. It’s hard for kids to sit down and stay focused for hours on end. We want to get these guys up for a little five-minute break. It actually helps them focus and get rejuvenated to learn.”

The colorful, illustrated decks of cards give kids choices and directions for upper-, middle-, lower-, and full-body exercises (cards calling for hopscotch, plank, and tightrope are just a few).

“Some teachers have different fitness breaks,” Derek notes. “Some like to get up and moving with kids; some use online videos from YouTube—Cosmic yoga is a big one. The cards are another choice for them. A teacher can take out the deck and the students can read the type of exercise they want and choose the amount they want to do and whether it’s by a number or time duration.”

Whatever exercise options are going on at MJS, the most popular, by far, are Fitness Fridays with Coach D. Every other Friday, Derek either gets the whole school up and running during the “morning news” broadcast or pops into one classroom to get kids out of their seats for a fast five minutes of frantic activity.

“When I’m on the morning news, I’m literally on every Smartboard in every classroom so every student can work out with me,” says Derek. “On the mornings I’m not on the news, I make it a point to go to one class for a live Fitness Friday performance. I write it all down so I make sure I get to every classroom, and we leave it as a surprise for the students. The only one who knows I’m coming is their teacher. It’s a good feeling when I get to the door and they smile.”

It was more like a rock star reception for Derek when The Courier came along for his quick visit to Shauna Panella’s kindergarten classroom on March 1. Derek arrives with his own music to pump up the kids. Several steps, jumps, runs, and push-ups later, the session ended with an all-hands in, super loud “Fitness Friday!” shout-out.

“I try to make school as fun as possible for these kids,” says Derek. “Because if they’re having fun while they’re here, it’s a kind of trickle-down effect. Everybody’s going to want to learn, everybody’s going to want to do better, especially if they’re having fun.”

Derek credits MJS Principal Paula McCarthy with inspiring him to find new and different ways to motivate and assist the student body, faculty, and MJS community through his work.

“My principal is constantly pushing the envelope and asking us, ‘What can you do?’ I don’t believe there is a ceiling for us. I don’t want to get stuck in a plateau. So I came up with a fundraiser event to help the PTO by putting on a fitness event, Family Fitness Night,” says Derek. “I do it once a year, typically in February on a Friday, in which my students can come back from 6 to 8 to engage in a variety of fitness and exercise with their friends and with family.”

The popular annual event took place this year on Feb. 8 with an obstacle course, basketball shooting station, scooter races, Cosmic yoga, Tae Kwon Do, and more. Derek says he’s always grateful to the PTO and community members for their support in helping to pull together the big night, which this year raised approximately $2,000 for the PTO to put back into use at MJS .

“What is great is Guilford is a community, in every sense of the word,” says Derek. “I do get a lot of help from the community, and they’re fantastic.”

Derek also thanks alumni parents and Guilford business owners who helped out including James Newman, CEO/owner of Quest Fitness; Danielle Scarpellino, owner of and instructor at The Spot-Guilford Acrobatics & Co.; and Grand Master Se Jin Park, president of World Champion Tae Kwon Do.

“I get a lot of support, and it’s all for the kids. It’s great,” says Derek.

Derek’s also grateful for the opportunities GFFE presents to Guilford educators and others to help enhance the learning experiences of students in town. Last year, he used another GFFE grant he wrote, together with funds contributed by MJS PTO, to bring the National Circus Project to school for an entire week.

“They took over my classroom, and I was there to assist. They taught every student, from kindergarten to 4th grade, unconventional circus tricks,” says Derek. “They taught everything from juggling to diablo—which is like a very big Yo-Yo—to devil sticks, to stilts and balancing, to mime work. And then, at the end of that week on Friday, my third- and 4th-graders put on a live circus for the rest of the school and their friends and family and parents came in. Everyone really enjoyed it.”

He’s considering going for a grant and finding additional funding to have the circus program return to MJS next year, when a new group of 3rd-and 4th-grade students would get the opportunity to put on a show. Another grant-worthy project Derek is considering is to bring an “escape room” schoolwide curricular experience to MJS.

“I’m constantly thinking as to what I can do. I want to always challenge myself,” says Derek. “The escape room idea was recommended by a colleague of mine. It’s a curriculum program that is escape room-based for all areas of education, that I can also share with classroom teachers. In addition to physical education, it dives into mathematics, science, reading, writing—you name it, this curriculum has it set and ready for you.”

A Bigger Mission

When you stop to consider that Derek is also the only physical education teacher in a school with 200 students, you start to realize the lengths to which he’s willing to go to make fitness a priority for young people.

“A lot of my students like to talk about the tech today, the video games, and I feel a lot of kids aren’t getting outside and playing anymore,” says Derek. “And I feel like they just need to find something that makes them happy through exercise. We want to get these guys outside; we want them to play; we want them to get healthy. We don’t want them to sit down too long and get consumed by the technology, which is very easy to do.”

Derek says he’s constantly learning from his kids, giving an example of the student who helped him to realize that kids need to hear that “nobody’s perfect,” he says.

“I’ve had students that would be very afraid to come down here, because I believe they put a lot of pressure on themselves. I had one student who was upset if she couldn’t make a basketball shot. There’s a speech I give every class because of her, which is that we have to be resilient, we have to come back and keep trying,” he says, adding that student overcame the pressure.

“She fell in love the with sport and became a great shooter,” says Derek.

He also values students’ input to help them stay involved and interested in being active.

“I don’t want things to get stale,” he says. “Kids get bored quick. You’ve got to keep them on their toes!”

One way he gets kids involved is by seeking feedback about Field Day, a year-end, fun day for students held each June.

“It’s a big day for them, and I try to change it up a bit every year,” says Derek. “I ask the students what their favorite station was, and what was their least favorite, and I’ll scrap that one and try something new. This year, I’m going to have them create a station—I’m going to make it a part of one of my units in April or May.”

This time of year, Derek is also gearing up to continue coaching with the Soccer Club of Guilford. He’s now in his sixth year leading the girls’ 14-under team.

“It’s a lot of fun, and I also get to meet other students in other schools in town. This is a soccer town, for sure,” he says.

A Hamden native, Derek recalls he always organized games and activities at family get-togethers. He also knew he wanted to be a physical education teacher from a young age.

“My mother always said to me, ‘You would make a great physical education teacher.’ And she said that to me when I was very

young, because I was that brother or cousin that, when we were at family picnics, always was setting up the games to play and would motivate people to get up and move. And that kind of always stuck with me,” he says. “And as I grew up and was trying to figure out what I wanted to do, mom’s voice in my head led to here. It was great advice.”

The advice stuck even as Derek’s post-secondary education choice attempted to follow what he thought was a more certain path toward the teaching profession: becoming an English teacher.

“I tried to make the right decision to start my life,” he says. “I knew becoming an English teacher, I’d probably have more success, as English is more of a high-demand position rather than physical education. So I did receive my bachelor’s in English. But after I was done with it, my heart said, ‘Physical education, physical education.’”

Derek went back to school for three years, earning dual certifications to teach health and physical education from Southern Connecticut State University, “and that’s what got me here today,” he says.

He arrived at MJS after two years of long-term substitute teaching with Stratford public schools. Now, Derek can’t imagine working anywhere else.

“It doesn’t feel like work when I show up,” he says. “That’s the goal, to do something you’re passionate about and it doesn’t feel like work. And I get to do that.”

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