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Principal Vondra Glass Changes Detroit Kids' Lives with Martial Arts

He's helping middle school students at Detroit Premier Academy boost confidence and grades – and tackle bullies, obesity and a rough neighborhood

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Making strides

Bullying is what draws many kids to the martial arts class at first. While Glass has a very strict rule against fighting – "If they get in a fight, they're off the team," he says; "I don't want them using what they learn here against others" – he does have his students demonstrate what they can do at school assemblies. "A potential bully will see one of these kids break a board and they'll say 'Oh! Not going to do that!'" Glass says. It also gives the students confidence that they can defend themselves against attacks if need be, and exuding that self-assurance makes them less of a target.

The exercise, lightning-fast movements and physical control needed to perform martial arts make a big difference in children's health. Often, kids who are beginning to gain weight start the class and, after a few weeks, their weight starts settling into the normal range, he says.

But the real magic, the thing that makes these lessons so much more than a hobby, is the discipline and focus needed to perform. For most extracurricular activities at the school, students must have at least a 2.5 grade-point average, be within 5 percent of proficient on standardized tests, and have mostly good behavior reports. With these kids, though, Glass relaxes that, because he wants kids who need to be there – those that are struggling academically or socially – to be able to join the team.

Menelik Burnside, an eighth grader at the school, is one of those kids. He joined the team at Glass' urging in fifth grade, when he was getting into a lot of trouble and not doing well in his classes. He made the commitment to stay, and found that his grades and behavior improved. He's now in honors classes, preparing to apply to the elite Cass Tech, Detroit School for the Arts, and Renaissance high schools and talking about college – something Glass says was not the case before.

"When I started coming here, he started talking to me and started giving me a chance," Burnside says of Glass. "This is a discipline class, and he would always discipline me when he found out I was being insubordinate. He would break that in front of the class, whether it was making me stand there and take punches or do jumping jacks or whatever."

Paying it forward

Now, Burnside also teaches the younger students in the class and shows a lot of patience and kindness with them – even though it's sometimes difficult, he admits. "It means a lot to me that I actually do so well that I am an example," he says.

Glass is very big on having the more experienced students teach the younger ones – something he believes instills strong relationships and a sense of responsibility and giving back among the younger kids. "When you learn something, you are responsible for teaching it to someone else," he says.

When their academic performance goes up, it can change the ideas these students have about their future, he says. "The success academically will change their lives forever," he says. "Their test scores and their grades start improving, and that's just the start of changing them, so they can change their socioeconomic situation. It makes it easier to shift the conversation to talk about more substantive things than trying to fish them out of trouble all the time."

Martial arts might be an unorthodox method to do it, but changing the lives of young people – giving them a belief in their future – is what keeps educators going.

"It makes it worth coming to work, because you know what you're doing is actually making a difference, and you can see it," he says.

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