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Yvonne Abraham

Dorchester boxing program is in students’ corner

Boxing program at Holmes Elementary
Boxing program at Holmes Elementary

How do you connect with kids who seem unreachable?

How about having them lace on a pair of boxing gloves and connect with you?

“Where you going?” says coach Russell Kimber, as a shy 6-year-old lands a couple of punches on Kimber’s body pads and backs off. “Is that all you got?”

Miguel’s eyes light up, and he returns, his little gloves reaching up to pummel the coach who towers over him: Bop-bop-bop-bop. Seven other kids from kindergarten and first and second grade cheer him on. “Go Miguel! Go Miguel!”

A few months ago, all of these boys, students at the Holmes Elementary School in Dorchester, were struggling. Some were withdrawn. Some were dealing with events no child should experience: the death of a parent, domestic violence. Some were written up constantly for aggressive behavior.

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These are the kids often left behind when public schools make progress — black and Latino boys, especially those with social and emotional issues. Boston Public Schools are trying to fix this and have been for years. But while the massive battleship that is the school system turns itself around, boys continue to fall overboard.

At the Holmes, classes typically include five kids with social or emotional difficulties and 15 regular ed students. Principal Yeshi Gaskin Lamour is big on meeting kids where they are. She’s willing to try anything that might make them feel connected — to learning, to the school, to each other.

“We have to do school different,” she says.

So when Janelle Ridley, a BPS program manager, suggested a boxing club, Lamour was all in. Ridley had seen how Kimber’s boxing classes had made her own 6-year-old son more focused and confident. Let’s try it for eight weeks, she suggested. They called it Bonding In Brotherhood.

They chose kids who were acting out, or needed help making connections. They gather twice a week, on Monday and Wednesday mornings, starting with a breakfast where the kids are urged to help solve each other’s problems. A big boy tripped him and wasn’t being nice, one of the littler kids tells the group. Tell an adult, the others offer. Stay away from him.

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After breakfast, the boys head down to the gym to stretch and warm up. They sit on mats, eyes closed. Coach picks a kid to lead them all in 10 long breaths, in and out. This can calm them when they get angry in class or at home, too. The kids lace up each other’s gloves. They’re in every part of this together. Then they break into groups to punch at bags, or at Kimber’s padding. One, two, hook. One, two, hook. They are gleeful and determined.

“Nice punches, Rey! You been working on these at home?”

“No!” protests Rey, a curly haired 8-year-old whose arcing hooks are graceful and sure.

Rey carefully follows the rules; punching anything other than the bag or the pads is a way to get kicked out of the club. And nobody here wants that. Not Rey, for whom school has been an anchor in a year of pain. Not Theo, the second-grader who used to be in big trouble all the time and now helps keep the little kids in line. Not Keigan, the brilliant boy with autism who couldn’t look you in the eye before. Not Dshawn, who saw his mother face abuse and was so angry he was coming home with discipline reports day after day.

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It’s early, but in the eight weeks the program has been running, parents and teachers have seen some of these kids transformed. Withdrawn kids are walking with their heads held high, making eye contact, and friends. Kids who lashed out are getting in trouble less often, or not at all.

“They’re being recognized for something other than getting in trouble,” says Gardy Dorneval, the school’s dean of discipline. “Now they’re brothers, together.”

They still have struggles, he says, but nothing like before.

It’s working so well, you just wish more kids could be part of it. And that it would last. But there is no guarantee. The program has been a seat-of-the-pants affair, launched quickly, after school budgets were set. Kimber has been providing his services for free. Ridley has been paying for breakfasts from her own pocket. That can’t continue.

Ridley, Kimber, and Lamour have been remarkably innovative and nimble. But so far, their GoFundMe campaign has raised only $140 of its $30,000 target. They’ll request funding from the next BPS budget. They ought to get it.

After they spar, the boys cool down and sit in a circle. They take turns saying something nice.

“I like Miguel’s sneakers,” says Rey.

“I want you to be my cousin,” Nacurtis says to Keith.

Then, after a group hug, they head back to their classrooms together, tired and beaming.

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Janelle Ridley got a hug from the students in the boxing program.
Janelle Ridley got a hug from the students in the boxing program.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.