The teenage high school students, dressed in white robes knotted at the waist with matching cloth belts, lined up shoulder-to-shoulder, bowed to their teacher and prepared for the day’s lesson: Precision forearm blocks and whirling chest-high kicks.
This is karate class at J.E.B. Stuart High School in Falls Church, Va., the only instruction of its kind offered for Fairfax County students in Virginia’s largest school district. What is also unusual about the class is its main focus — encouraging peace and diplomacy — and that the lead instructor saw firsthand how conflict can ravage a country as a refugee.
For the students at Stuart, the karate lessons also instill confidence, discipline and respect that administrators say has led to a dramatic improvement in student behavior in surprising ways.
Stuart, near Seven Corners, serves nearly 2,000 students and has one of the highest concentrations of poverty in the county; more than 60 percent of the school’s population qualifies for free or reduced-price meals. The school lags 10 percentage points behind the county and state average graduation rates, and the average SAT score at Stuart is among the lowest in the county. In recent years the school has struggled with discipline issues and low teacher morale.
The karate class aims to help the school improve by helping individual students see life a little differently.
Principal Prosperanta Calhoun said that one student in the new program who used to be involved with gangs is now becoming a model leader with a more straight-edged group of friends. Another teen, Calhoun said, has become more self-assured.
“She has been empowered, she has a voice now,” said Calhoun, noting that the karate lessons also provide students with basic self-defense moves.
“They feel safer,” said Calhoun who stressed that any student who instigates a fight in or out of school is automatically expelled from the karate class. “They are learning for self-control, not for fighting.”
Senior Linda Vu knows how intimidating a crowded high school hallway can be during the shuffle between classes, and she used to be reticent about speaking to others.
“I originally wanted to join to increase my self-confidence,” Linda said. “Sometimes I’m nervous when I talk to people. I would feel intimidated by random people in the hallway.”
But not anymore, she said. The karate helps the 17-year-old walk more confidently throughout the school, and she no longer shies away.
For her karate classmate Kevin Palomino, 17, the new program sounded like a cool opportunity to learn how to punch and kick. But he says it turned out to be much more rewarding.
“It’s more about discipline and self-control,” Kevin said. Now he feels he’s a leader among his peers, exuding an aura of calm in otherwise unruly class settings. “Most kids around school act wild and don’t give respect in class like we do. “I can be a leader.”
Terry Tran, an 18-year-old senior who is a black belt, said that the karate classes twice a week at Stuart give students a healthy physical and mental outlet.
“It’s a good way to relieve stress,” he said.
Calhoun said that the karate class — technically a school club — has a wait list for students seeking to join. Calhoun also said she’s moving to turn the club into a Stuart sports team, which could boost funding for the fledgling program that began this fall.
Soolmaz Abooali, 31, is a world-wide karate competitor and has won multiple championships. She’s also a Ph.D. candidate at George Mason University who is researching how to incorporate sports into peacemaking diplomatic missions, inspired by the transformative role martial arts played on her childhood as a foreigner in an adopted country.
Abooali was born in Behbehan, an ancient city in southwestern Iran. Her father was an electrical engineer who helped spirit her family out of the country shortly after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The family eventually settled in Winnipeg, Canada.
“I adapted quickly,” Abooali said. She took up karate by age 11. Ever since, martial arts has served as a constant in her life.
“I saw how traditional karate was important to my identity,” said Abooali, who volunteers her time at Stuart instructing the karate class alongside orchestra teacher and black belt Cassandra Haynes, 34.
The teachers tell the students that the new skills they learn can help de-escalate tense situations.
“Karate helps students tap into assets and qualities they do not realize they have,” Abooali said. “That idea that they can become a better person.”
Anyone can hit another person, Haynes said, but it takes discipline to walk away.
During a recent class, the students took turns performing non-contact karate moves, including a tightly choreographed series of spins and strikes. When the teens got sloppy, Abooali ensured the students paid for it in push-ups. Awareness is key in a chaotic moment of potential conflict, she said.
“The idea is that you are ready without knowing what might happen,” she told the students. “You are ready for anything in any direction.”
At the end of class, the students lined up again next to each other. Then they departed in what has become a new ritual for the students: Bowing to one another in procession as a sign of respect.