School fitness program renews hopes, spirits
by Michelle Sokol, The Republic
March 16, 2014 09:37 PM | 1396 views | 0 0 comments | 10 10 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Lesleigh Groce, right, leads a fitness walk with students Abby McDermott, left, Danielle Grass and Brianna Underwood, on March 7 during the Launch program at Franklin Community High School in Franklin, Ind. Every semester the school identifies the students who are at risk for failing or not graduating. From there, Groce works with those students to build alternative education into their schedule. <br> The Associated Press
Lesleigh Groce, right, leads a fitness walk with students Abby McDermott, left, Danielle Grass and Brianna Underwood, on March 7 during the Launch program at Franklin Community High School in Franklin, Ind. Every semester the school identifies the students who are at risk for failing or not graduating. From there, Groce works with those students to build alternative education into their schedule.
The Associated Press
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Groce, second from right, guards Grass in the school gymnasium during a pick up basketball game on March 7 in the Launch program at Franklin Community High School in Franklin, Ind. Also pictured is McDermott, left, and Underwood.
Groce, second from right, guards Grass in the school gymnasium during a pick up basketball game on March 7 in the Launch program at Franklin Community High School in Franklin, Ind. Also pictured is McDermott, left, and Underwood.
slideshow
FRANKLIN, Ind. — Two hundred pounds.

That’s how much weight 15 students have lost since January with the help of Columbus native Lesleigh Groce, an alternative educator at Franklin Community High School.

Eric Ekis, a freshman who just last year weighed close to 500 pounds, has lost 28 pounds. Freshman Brianna Underwood has lost 24 pounds, and senior Danielle Grass has lost 17.

The three students come from different and difficult backgrounds — Ekis’ father died in 2010, and both of Underwood’s parents are in prison — but they have one thing in common: Groce.

She is more than a teacher for the students. She’s a motivator, a friend, a mother and a drill sergeant.

Groce leads the Launch program at Franklin, which targets at-risk students and places them in smaller classes. The students could be struggling with grades, behavior, health or all of the above.

“They don’t fit in other places,” she told The Republic. “There’s no sport, no group, no club. They’re just floating through the breeze. Suddenly they’re failing, and people don’t notice.”

But it’s Groce’s job to notice.

Every semester, the school identifies the students who are at risk for failing or not graduating. From there, she works with those students to build alternative education into their schedule.

“It’s a proactive approach so the kids don’t feel like they’re in this big giant hole and they can never dig their way out,” she said.

She has found physical education has prevented many students from graduating, so she focuses her classes on nutrition, fitness, and physical and mental health.

Every morning, they walk or play basketball or work with a personal trainer.

“These kids don’t dress out in PE because people might see all their insecurities,” she said. “They don’t want to participate because it will expose them.”

But exposing them is exactly what Groce does when the students come to her. She opens up the conversation so students can confront and address their problems.

“I felt like I was depressed. I felt like I was fat,” Underwood said. “But Mrs. Groce has given us this opportunity, and it’s like I need to grab it. We’ve made this class into a family.”

She said she has never felt a connection to a teacher as she has had with Groce, and that connection is motivating her to come to school every day.

Ekis, too, said the class is a second family — it’s an escape. After his dad died and depression took over, Ekis had given up.

Then teacher Don Wettrick, who has since left FCHS for a job in Noblesville, intervened. He told Ekis he refused to sit by and watch him die.

After that breakthrough, Ekis let Groce into his life. And then he let the Launch classmates in.

“They push each other, and they push Eric,” she said.

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