In the fall of 2014, Jessica Hubbard was a new Special Education teacher at Fairley High School, and she found herself in a conversation with another educator about how intensive exercise like boxing could relieve stress. She had just moved to Memphis from Nashville, where she had taken up kickboxing, and she began to consider what impact the discipline innate to a sport like boxing could have on students as well. “I joined the program to help me get control of myself and my anger,” reflected Javeries Suggs, a freshman at Fairley. “It has helped me become a nicer and calmer person. It has also helped me keep myself on track and stay more focused.”
Hubbard recognized that often a student’s misbehavior is indicative of a need for more socioemotional support. “I’ve always been really drawn to students who are pinned with certain labels. I want to work away from that. Boxing teaches discipline and self control, and I knew that could help.” In her second year at Fairley, Hubbard began the Grindhouse Boxing Program with just a handful of students who needed extra support and structure at school. The purpose of the program is to provide youth with a safe environment that fosters and promotes physical, mental, and emotional health through the use of boxing and kickboxing. She worked with Fairley’s principal to submit a grant application to secure funding for the program’s initial supplies. Four years later, the program thrives with Hubbard as the program’s coach, even as she transitioned to a Behavior Specialist role supporting all of Green Dot’s five schools in Memphis.
The Power of Commitment
When the program started, Hubbard worked with school leadership to choose a handful of students who had a lot of potential, but were prone to getting in trouble. She believed the additional structure would benefit them inside and outside of the classroom. This year, the program has seven participants, all of whom make behavioral and academic commitments to stay in the program.
“[Grindhouse Boxing] has helped me become a nicer and calmer person. It has also helped me keep myself on track and stay more focused.”
-- Javeries Suggs, freshman at Fairley
“Most of our team members start with a GPA around a 1.5, and eventually they have to earn a 2.5 GPA,” said Hubbard. In addition to encouraging the parallel between the hard work needed in the boxing gym and in the classroom, Hubbard holds the same level of academic accountability for the boxing club as other athletic teams at the school. To drive the point home, Hubbard does a weekly grade check for Grindhouse Boxers, and if their grade drops below a C in any class, they must attend tutoring. In addition, they are not permitted to stay in the program if they’ve been suspended, had two misbehaviors logged in a month, or if they’re involved in a fight. “I also check on tardies and absences,” said Hubbard. If there are 20 tardies collectively, then the entire team does 20 burpees at subsequent practice. “We work as a team. Your actions have an impact on other people.” Students who are asked to leave the program for any of these infractions are invited to rejoin in the following year, as long as they make the same commitments. “Students have been really honest with me about any behavior infractions because they know what it means for them,” said Hubbard. “It shows an increase in self awareness, especially when they know someone’s watching and checking in.”
As a result of the commitments program participants have made to both academic and behavioral requirements, their grades have improved and there has been a decrease in behavior incidents. Additionally, these students have become a team, holding each other accountable and encouraging each other to make positive decisions. Hubbard recalled the experience of one Grindhouse Boxer: “[Marlin] had trouble monitoring his emotions, but eventually he would start texting the team to share his feelings. ‘I’m frustrated, I want to get in a fight,’ he would say. The group would respond and encourage him. He internalized the love and really leaned on the support of the group, and his grades began improving.”
Building Rituals and a Home
At this point in the year and in the life of the program, students enter the newly remodeled boxing room knowing exactly what to do. At each practice, one of the more senior students turns on the timer, and the team begins jumping rope. At the end of practice, another senior team member leads the group through a set of exercises to cool down, and all students begin verbally reflecting on what they did well in practice and what they hope to improve. At the end of class, Hubbard returns to their motto, “Power, Perseverance, Patience, and Pride,” and shares a reflection on one of the words in particular. All students complete their role in cleaning the room, leaving it just as they found it.
Team members take pride in their practice space, understanding that it took years of fundraising to build. When the program began, Hubbard and a few of her colleagues cleared out an old storage room that was no longer in use. They gave it a fresh coat of paint, and Hubbard’s old gym in Nashville donated two boxing bags. Each year, Hubbard and the team took a new approach to fundraising, and over time have built a full boxing room with five bags, gloves, pads, mats and storage lockers.
The Future of Grindhouse
Hubbard is committed to staying with the program, despite spreading her time over five campuses. Fortunately, the Grindhouse Boxing Program recently received generous support from the Nike Community Impact Fund Memphis. Their support makes a number of additional purchases for the gym possible, and opens up doors to find new partners in the work. She hopes to find more colleagues or community partners who have the background and training join her in leading the program. While the space can accommodate up to 30 students, the nature of the sport and the goals of the program require more adults in order to serve more students. Inspired by these student outcomes, teachers at other Green Dot schools in Memphis are hoping to start similar programs on their campuses, including Wooddale Middle School and Hillcrest High School.
At Green Dot, we know how important it is that all students feel seen and have the opportunity to become young leaders. Programs like Grindhouse Boxing are vital to help reveal and nurture the success that all students can achieve when provided the right structure and support.