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

Houston Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - By Ja­cob Car­pen­ter STAFF WRITER

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.”

Brett Coomer / Staff photograph­er

Karate in­struc­tor Roy White presents sev­enth-grader Es­ther Se­bas­tian her or­ange belt at Bur­bank Mid­dle School.

Brett Coomer / Staff photograph­er

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.

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