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Teacher honored for commitment to Project Fit at Riverhead Charter School

As physical education teacher Robert Cook blows his whistle, children scatter throughout the Riverhead Charter School gymnasium. It’s their signal to separate into pairs as they prepare for double track cup attack, a game where students run laps to collect cups. Each day, students set a short-term goal of how many cups they’ll collect and try to improve their last record.

The game is linked to Project Fit America, a nonprofit that creates and administers fitness programs in elementary and middle schools. The organization tackles self-esteem, leadership, sportsmanship and character development through exercise, according to its website.

This week, Mr. Cook, 38, who helped bring the program to the charter school in 2016, was recognized by members of Project Fit America and Peconic Bay Medical Center for his implementation of and commitment to the program. He was awarded the 2018 “National All Star Teacher of the Year” award, nationally distributed to three teachers each year.

Mr. Cook, of Wading River, said that in the 14 years he’s been in the district he’s seen students physically struggle as a result of a lack of exercise. It’s part of what pushed him to find an alternative program for student fitness.

In 2013, Project Fit America launched in all five public elementary schools in Riverhead Central School District, the first program in the state. After Mr. Cook got word of the program, he visited Roanoke Elementary School in 2016 with Principal Raymond Ankrum to see it in action.

“I knew right away. I said, ‘This is a program that the kids are going to love. They’re going to be challenged,’ ” he said. “It’s part of disguised fitness, they don’t realize how much they’re exercising.”

The majority of the program’s sponsors are healthcare organizations and hospitals such as PBMC. The program came to the North Fork roughly six years ago after Samantha Vigliotta, PBMC’s vice president of foundation and external affairs, teamed up with school districts and other East End organizations like GymGuyz East End, the Mattituck Lions Club and Kait’s Angels, PBMC president and CEO Andy Mitchell said at the event. The Greenport and Cutchogue East Elementary schools implemented the program in 2016 along with the charter school.

“It incorporates the thought process of being physical, as opposed to just being physical,” Mr. Ankrum said.

Mr. Cook said program is all about TCC — teamwork, communication and cooperation.

“We constantly have them working with each other,” he said. “As soon as they come in, they find a partner using TCC. I give them three exercises. They need to complete as many rounds as they can in a five-minute time span and every day they’re setting a new goal with their partner.”

Indoor activities like double track cup attack prepare students for outdoor challenges, which are part of several fitness tests, Mr. Cook said. Students are tested several times throughout the year and are motivated to improve their previous records.

Between long school days and hour-long bus rides to the charter school, the teacher said, he knows that some students aren’t getting an hour of daily exercise. For that reason, he aims to keep the kids moving 60 to 70 percent of class time.

“It’s about just teaching them the skills, so when they’re older, they know to take care of their bodies,” he said.

Project Fit America has developed fitness programs in over 1,000 schools and impacted over 500,000 children.

“The focus of the program is to teach these kids how to achieve and maintain a healthy lifestyle,” he said. “This isn’t about me, it’s about the kids.”

Photo caption: Riverhead Charter School teacher Robert Cook, center, was honored Monday. (Credit: Kate Nalepinski)

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