Karate in middle schools is alive and kicking
For over 25 years, nonprofit has been teaching self-defense, building character at Houston, Fort Bend ISD campuses
When Esperanza Gutierrez’s fifth-grade class visited Burbank Middle School, a field trip designed to acclimate students with their next campus, she became mesmerized by an unexpected sight: dozens of kids performing karate.
Gutierrez, then a student at Houston ISD’s Berry Elementary School, watched a Burbank demonstration team move with power and precision, wondering if she could one day don their uniforms and belts.
“When I first saw it, I was like, ‘How did that do that? That’s awesome!’ ” Gutierrez said.
Two years later, Gutierrez respectfully bowed as she entered her first-period class at Burbank, wearing a clean white karate gi and newly-acquired orange belt, ready for one of Houston ISD’s most unusual traditions.
For more than 25 years, dozens of public schools across Greater Houston have offered daily karate classes as part of their physical education curriculum, teaching students the arts of self-defense and self-respect during regular class schedules. The initiative, operated through the Kickstart Kids nonprofit founded by martial artist and actor Chuck Norris, reaches 12 campuses in HISD and 14 in Fort Bend ISD, enrolling thousands of children annually.
Each school day, Kickstart Kids instructors function as
teachers on their campuses, while also running a regimented operation mirroring any of the area’s private martial arts academies. The program thrives in HISD amid a movement in public education toward more socialemotional learning instruction, which typically involves teaching students how to manage their emotions, build positive relationships and make responsible decisions.
“I have to make sure that when they walk out of my room, they’ve learned two things: self-character and being able to defend themselves,” said Roy White, a sixthdegree black belt and one of Kickstart Kids’ founding instructors.
On a recent Wednesday morning at Burbank, White put about 40 barefoot seventh-graders through a series of combinations in his matted classroom, wandering the room to ensure proper posture. As well-attuned students punched, stepped and shouted “kiai” with each aggressive move, White offered subtle tips, bending back a flat wrist and nudging an out-of-place knee.
At Burbank and other schools throughout HISD, karate has become as synonymous with school as band and performing arts. Kickstart Kids boasts more than 100,000 alumni from Texas public schools, producing hundreds of black belts and champions in Norris’ United Fighting Arts Federation. Dozens of schools employ demonstration squads that perform at campus and community events, building a camaraderie similar to other extracurricular teams.
Tax records from 2017-18, the most recent year with available data, showed the nonprofit operated on a $5.7million budget, with nearly two-thirds of revenue derived from fees paid by students’ families and martial arts class participants. The program costs $50 per child each year.
Instructors acknowledged the allure of karate for students raised on Dragonball Z and martial arts cartoons, but they emphasized the program focuses on self-defense and character-building inherent in the discipline. Kickstart Kids’ curriculum also weaves in lessons aligned with the state’s requirements for physical education instruction, educating students on anatomy, biomechanics and personal health.
Exzavier Lopez, an eighthgrader and green belt in White’s class at Burbank, said the initiative has helped him communicate better with his parents and temper his emotions. Lopez said simple lessons, such as responding “yes, sir” to White’s questions in a prompt and authoritative voice, will have a lasting impact beyond middle school.
“I used to have a really bad temper, but when I joined karate, doing karate let my anger out,” said Lopez, who hopes to attend one of HISD’s college preparatory high schools next year. “I was excited, because I knew I had to change up. It’s been good for me.”
Lopez’s experience mirrors that of Kickstart Kids instructor Matthew Garza, who started karate as a sixth-grader at HISD’s Black Middle School in the mid-2000s. Garza said the physicality of karate appealed to him, while instructor Derrick Stinson became a strong male figure at a time when his father was not a major presence in his life.
Now 28, Garza has returned to Black as the school’s Kickstart Kids instructor, aiming to build strong relationships with students from a similar upbringing. He remains in regular contact with Stinson, who now works as a regional director for the nonprofit.
“I can do these backflips or cool moves for them, but if there’s no connection, I’m just like a movie to them,” Garza said. “I know what it’s like waiting for your mom and dad to get back together, or your grandfather passing away. I had two kids just last week saying, ‘I need to talk to you,’ and they’re just crying. I can tell them it’s OK to cry, that it’s OK to talk to me.”
Kickstart Kids only operates in HISD middle schools, at a vulnerable, hormone-riddled point for many students. White said he believes karate provides an optimal outlet for children facing academic, family and social pressures, instilling a sense of community and discipline.
“In high school, they’ve already kind of figured out which route they’re going,” White said. “In middle school, they’re not sure yet. They can go left and do something good, or they can go right and do something bad. We want to be able to catch them there and help guide them in the right direction.”
For Burbank eighth-grader Destiny Olguin, karate classes have made her more self-assured and helped build bonds with new friends, no small feat for an admittedly shy teenager.
“Whenever I was in a class or after-school activity, I was really insecure and didn’t really want to open up to people,” said Olguin, an orange belt. “But then when I joined karate and started staying after school with Mr. White and all the other kids, I really did open up and gain confidence for myself.”
Karate instructor Roy White presents seventh-grader Esther Sebastian her orange belt at Burbank Middle School.
Vincente Vasquez, center, participates in Roy White’s karate class at Burbank Middle School. White believes karate provides an outlet for kids facing academic, family and social pressures.