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A little Taekwondo in three Boston public schools goes a long way

Posted by Emily Files  December 11, 2012 11:41 AM

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taekwondo-png (1).jpgMonday mornings are the most dreaded day of the week for many third-graders. But in three Boston Public Schools, Taekwondo programs are encouraging exercise, discipline, and an excitement to be in school.

When city councilman Tito Jackson recommended a program offered by the U.S. Taekwondo Education Foundation to Joy Salesman-Oliver, principal of Higginson/Lewis School in Roxbury, she knew it was exactly what the school was looking for. At the time, she was searching for programs that taught structure and helped to boost self-esteem in her students. Monday classes in the disciplined martial arts, led by Master Hans, have served that purpose, especially for what Salesman-Oliver described as her rambunctious third-grade students.

“If you can do this program with them, you can do it with anyone,” she said. The second week of the program, she went down to the gym, and to her surprise, the students “were actually lined up in their uniforms” and fully engaged, she said. It was working.

The U.S. Taekwondo Education Foundation is a non-profit, established in 2007, to collaborate with public schools on instilling strong mental and physical discipline, in the hopes of helping students improve both their behavior and academics.

The program began in March at Higginson/Lewis with the school’s 29 third-graders -- a student body that Salesman-Oliver described as not particularly active. Busy playing video games more than sports, many of the students face obesity and diabetes. The Taekwondo program is making them move their bodies, stretch, and do things they aren’t used to, she said.

In addition to challenging their bodies, the program encourages them to bring a new focus to their academics. The changes in school work were “remarkable,” Salesman-Oliver said, in part because students were not allowed to participate in Taekwondo if they were not doing their schoolwork. Participation also improved behavior, with students showing more respect to their peers, teachers and parents, she said.

Dorchester’s King K-8 School saw similar changes when it introduced Taekwondo to the curriculum this fall. Principle Jessica Bolt said her 44 third-graders just finished the program in the middle of November, and she plans on starting another round in January with her fourth- and fifth-graders.

At King, the program is part of the school’s health and wellness efforts to address a lack of sports in the elementary grades. While middle school students have the opportunity to participate in school sports, younger children do not. U.S. Taekwondo is growing in popularity in schools, especially in grades 3-5, where students show interest in physical activities.

Bolt is considering adding the program to the school curriculum every year, based on its initial success.

“It’s something really nice for kids that fell right in place with the character-building we do in the school,” she said. As with Higginson/Lewis, the program helped to boost academics, while also building students’ self-confidence and ability to work as a team.

“One of the things I liked was that Master Hans told them they were a team, and they had to work together,” said Bolt. If one student didn’t do what was instructed, all had to do additional exercises. This type of reinforcement helped with behavior problems, she said: no one acted up, and everyone did their schoolwork so they could attend on Mondays.

At McKinley Elementary, 12 third- and fourth-grade students participated in Master Hans’class. The McKinley schools provide special education for students in grades K-12 with emotional, behavioral and learning needs. The schools have a highly structured behavior management system and offer intensive support for students and families.

McKinley Headmaster Velecia Saunders, who visited the class on Mondays, said, “It was absolutely amazing watching them.” Students with moderate psychological and behavioral concerns were able to acclimate themselves to the program and follow the rules. She said Taekwondo, with its focus on respect for self and others, teaches coping mechanisms for behavior and emotions. McKinley teachers were able to bring Master Hans’ teachings into the classroom to encourage the same behaviors.

Saunders said the incentive element worked: Students knew that if they did not do well in class, they would miss out on something they looked forward to each week.

After ten weeks, all third graders from the three schools received their yellow belts in a culminating ceremony. Parents were invited to the awards’ reception, where students received their belts and certificates of achievement.

All three principals plan to continue the program with fourth graders when students return from vacation in January. Next year, the third-graders who have their yellow belts will be able to move on to the next level.

Higginson/Lewis principal Salesman-Oliver said that while some people may be skeptical of the program’s merits, its impact on behavior and self-esteem is palpable.

“Children who are otherwise reluctant are now proactive,” she said. “They aren’t just sitting around anymore.”

This article was reported and written under the supervision of Northeastern University journalism instructor Lisa Chedekel, as part of collaboration between The Boston Globe and Northeastern.

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