Martial arts can work wonders with inner-city middle-schoolers, says Freddie Magee, principal at Fair Plain Middle School, even raising their grades
By Scott Aiken
H-P Staff Writer
BENTON HARBOR — Early on a weekday morning, students at Fair Plain Middle School head into the gym, drop their backpacks along the bleachers, then sit on the floor in loosely formed rows to wait for their instructor.
After a few minutes Alvin Smith, a grand master in tae kwon do, the famed martial art that originated in Korea, calls the 70 boys and girls to their feet.
Conversation stops. The rows quickly straighten and all eyes are on Smith’s imposing figure.
Smith leads the students through short drills to start — a series of commands and responding moves. He booms out questions, each answered with “Yes, sir!” shouted in unison.
After more drills the session ends, and the students head to their next class.
Since the start of the semester in September, tae kwon do has been a presence at Fair Plain. It’s one of several related arts classes students can take as an elective. About 100 students participate.
While tae kwon do’s punching and kicking may be the hook that gets kids interested, they learn discipline, respect and ethics along the way.
School officials already see a positive effect. They hope to duplicate at Fair Plain the results experienced at Hull Middle School, where tae kwon do classes have been held since 2007.
“We were the worst school in the state,” said Freddie Magee, who was principal at Hull when the program began. For six consecutive years the school had failed to meet adequate yearly progress goals of the federal No Child Left Behind Law.
With the blessing of district administrators, Magee worked with Smith to turn an after-school tae kwon do program into a regular class.
The class, along with the use of intervention techniques aimed at troubled and undisciplined youths, turned things around. Hull met AYP requirements last year.
“It worked wonders at Hull,” said Magee, now principal at Fair Plain Middle School.
While some new tae kwon do students are rebellious, most come around and respond to Smith and his assistants, and gain a sense of pride in what they’re accomplishing, said Magee, who holds a black belt.
Many of the students grew up in single-parent families and did not learn self-discipline or how to control anger, Magee said. They can gain those attributes through tae kwon do.
Smith, who operates his own school, R.E.A.D.Y. Taekwondo Academy in Benton Harbor, has donated his services free to the school district, but the students need uniforms.
A United Way grant of $30,000 annually for three years will provide some funding, but money will not be available until January.
Magee said the district hopes to raise $9,000 in donations to provide a distinctive white uniform, called a dobok, to each student at Fair Plain and Hull.
The Upton Foundation, Berrien Community Foundation and First Chance, formerly the Citizens for Progressive Change, have provided funding.
Tae kwon do is a form of unarmed combat that demands physical and mental conditioning.
Magee describes it as energy. He said teaching tae kwon do can be particularly effective in connecting with middle school students, who are in grades 6-8.
“It’s so easy for them to do the right thing,” he said. Many need only a nudge.
The class is open to all students, and those with behavior problems are encouraged to sign up.
Grades and success in school are a central part of the program. The school district provides Smith with progress reports on students enrolled in tae kwon do, and problems are addressed.
At a recent meet at Smith’s R.E.A.D.Y. school, students seeking advancement to the next level, signified by a different color belt, were questioned individually about school performance.
“Discipline is lacking,” Smith told one student, giving him two weeks to improve.
During that time, the youth must show his teacher that he is correcting the problem or he cannot advance. Other students were praised for doing well and meeting objectives.
Magee said students strive to improve because they want to continue their tae kwon do training.
“They don’t want to drop this,” he said.
Staying out of trouble
Wes Smigielski, a Benton Harbor police detective, said Smith’s work helps steer youths clear of trouble.
“There are some kids in (the tae kwon do classes) that I don’t see on the street anymore,” Smigielski said. “It’s helped me out quite a bit.”
The 59-year-old Smith grew up in Eau Claire, where he was drawn to the martial arts at an early age, in part because of the popular television shows and movies featuring masters like Bruce Lee.
He was particularly interested in tae kwon do. With no local school available, he enrolled in one in South Bend in 1968 when he could drive.
Smith enlisted in the Army in 1971 and was ordered to Korea. During 15 months in the country that originated tae kwon do, Smith obtained a black belt.
After being discharged he returned to Benton Harbor, where he opened his first school in 1973. He later moved to Huntsville, Ala., and lived there for 25 years, operating tae kwon do schools during that time.
He eventually progressed to eighth-degree black belt, a grand master. Ninth degree is top rank.
Smith also obtained a bachelor’s degree in business and a master’s degree in theology at Almeda University in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and attended seminary at Oakwood College in Huntsville.
He started spending time regularly in Benton Harbor in 1999, working at the request of then-Mayor Charles Yarbrough to find activities for youths. He moved back in 2006.
“I was very committed to our program here,” he said.
Learning discipline is an important part of success in tae kwon do, Smith said.
“Before a kid can really kick and punch, he has to adapt to the discipline,” he said. “It’s almost like putting your kid in the Army at a very early age.”
Not everyone catches on, and Smith can often spot those bound for trouble. He tells them directly that jail or a bullet may be the price for failing to change.
“What the school system is finding is that it carries over into other areas,” he said.
Smith relies on several assistants who are not paid by the school system but do receive a stipend. They include Dennis Davis, a retired police officer; Larry Young, who was trained by Smith in the 1970’s and is now a sixth-degree black belt and in charge of the program at Hull; and James Hyde, Darius Wimberly and Cedric Atkins. All hold black belts.
Smith said his assistants experienced the difficulty of growing up in tough circumstances.
“You’ve got to know how to deal with this particular kind of student,” he said.