Popular circus club is big-top fun for Harbor Heights Elementary students

Schools: Club teaches kids how to unicycle, balance on balls, walk on stilts

of the GatewayJanuary 15, 2014 

As far as club wait lists go, the Harbor Heights Circus Club is the Green Bay Packers season ticket of the Peninsula School District.

About 10 years ago, P.E. teacher Dave Rucci booted up a before-school health club. Then, it turned into a unicycle club. From there, Harbor Heights’ gym turned into a Big Top training ground.

There’s a lottery to get in. Each year, Rucci has 40 slots for the class of fourth- and fifth-graders. Rucci said about 150 students apply each year, so he has to drop names in a box.

It’s popular for a reason. Rucci emphasizes teamwork and discipline as students learn all sorts of unique skills.

“You don’t have to be good at it,” fifth-grader Mikayla Dunham said. “Nobody is ever mean to you. They never put you down, and they always use encouraging words.”

It’s important to be encouraging in Circus Club because students fall down. A lot.

Dunham is working on jump roping while she bounces on a pogo stick. Maddy Fouquette, a fifth-grader, stood by to hand Dunham the rope while she hopped.

Around the gym, parent helpers and fellow students “give an arm” to help with balance and stay safe. Students teach each other. Fifth-graders who got into the club in fourth grade become trainers for new recruits.

“We have to help each other get better at things,” Rucci said.

The group performs in the spring. There usually is a school assembly and some community events, such as the Maritime Gig parade.

Amy Dimatteo said her daughter, Shaye, brought a unicycle home to practice during winter break. She rode it all through the house, to the occasional chagrin of her mother. But she learned how to unicycle thanks to her extra practice.

On Friday morning, she quickly circled half the gym, arms akimbo, maintaining her balance. Once she made it back to the wall, sometimes with a rough brake on the gym pads, she hopped back on and went again.

Rucci patrols the open-gym environment, and he stops to help students with new skills. He blew his whistle to point out equipment on the floor. It needs to be cleaned up to prevent an accident. He wants to promote a safe, responsible environment.

Rucci lets students borrow a helmet the first time they forget, but a repeat offense means the student will sit out practice time. He also has students sign a responsibility form saying they will commit to keep up their grades and complete all their homework.

“He’s always there for you,” fifth-grader Kim Kritzer said. “I couldn’t do the stilts without him.”

As the spring performances approach, Rucci has two things on the agenda for the group: Pick out a club T-shirt color and find a skill for which they’re passionate.

Noah Flick rode on a tricycle while Gavin Bosselman scooted on a board and pulled Flick with a rope. The boys criss-crossed the active gym.

It’s was a Friday flurry of activity before the morning bell rang.

Stilt-walkers, balancing acts, spinning plates, speeding unicycles and, above all, a whole lot of laughing.

It’s fun, just like a circus should be.

Reporter Karen Miller can be reached at 253-358-4155 or by email at karen.miller@gateline.com. Follow her on Twitter, @gateway_karen.

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