At Nathan Bishop Middle School Wednesday, two students began to push each other after school. One boy tackled the other, and they tussled on the ground while a group of curious peers quickly circled around them.
It is a scene all too familiar at Providence Public Middle Schools, where fighting or violent incidents accounted for more than 1,000 suspensions across the eight district schools last year, according to the Rhode Island Department of Education.
But Wednesday was different. At the blow of a whistle, the boys released their chokeholds and erupted in a fit of laughter. They exchanged high-fives with each other and the onlookers before returning to their spots against the wall, ready for more instructions.
The two students and 30 of their classmates were halfway through wrestling practice with Beat the Streets, a not-for-profit organization providing co-ed wrestling training to urban schools across the country. Beat the Streets came to Providence this fall under the direction of Billy Watterson ’15, a member of the Brown wrestling team, who is taking the year off to get Beat the Streets Providence up and running.
Beat the Streets is launching its pilot program at Nathan Bishop this fall with the goal of spreading to more schools in the future.
Youth wrestling may not have a better success story than Watterson, a former Herald contributing writer. Poor grades and discipline problems marked Watterson’s early days in middle school, he said.
“My parents had just gotten divorced and I had terrible (attention deficit disorder) and (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder),” he said. “I just wasn’t making the transition well from elementary school to middle school. I fell in with a bad group of kids.”
But after a friend convinced Watterson to join the wrestling team, his life started to turn around, he said.
“Within a year after starting wrestling I had stopped taking any concentration medicine for ADD and ADHD — I just didn’t need it anymore,” he said. “I fully credit (wrestling) to any success I have had.”
After arriving at Brown as an undergraduate, Watterson began working in Providence schools as a tutor and aide.
“The first class I went into, the teacher said to me, ‘This is one of my bad classes, there are no good kids in it,’” he said. “I was shocked … They clearly were not seeing any pathways to success.”
Watterson said he found a way to make a difference when he met Jennifer Wood, the Rhode Island lieutenant governor’s chief of staff, while interning in the lieutenant governor’s office last summer. Wood, who studied Chinese martial arts for 15 years and previously worked for the state Department of Education, connected with Watterson over the idea of using a wrestling program to help public school students. Watterson also sought support from the Beat the Streets New York chairman, who offered him use of the Beat the Streets name and liability insurance.
Throughout the summer, Wood helped Watterson with the logistics of creating a not-for-profit and launching the program in middle schools through the Providence After-School Alliance, an organization that coordinates extracurricular opportunities for Providence students.
When practice began this month, Wood found herself right next to Watterson in the wrestling room demonstrating techniques.
“(Participating in practices) was not my expectation at all, but I find that Coach Watterson is a very persuasive individual, which is how he managed to get this whole thing up and running in six months,” Wood joked, adding that the effort was “really quite remarkable.”
To fill out the Beat the Streets staff, Watterson turned to Brown’s wrestling program. Zachary Kulczycki ’13, a former teammate of Watterson’s, now serves as the head coach of the Nathan Bishop program, and former Brown wrestling captains Craig Powell ’00 and Nick Ciarcia ’04 have aided the organization as board members for the Providence group. Other current and former Brown wrestlers also volunteer, giving pointers and lending their bodies as tackling dummies at practices.
Practices feature a blend of aggressive physicality and gleeful joking. Actions range from punching and pushing to choreographed technique as students learn wrestling moves with young and old, male and female coaches.
Other organizations provide tutoring or other activities for Providence middle schoolers, but wrestling can serve a unique purpose, Watterson said.
“I found this weird sport where it doesn’t matter how tall, short or unathletic you are — you can be successful,” Watterson said, recalling his first time on the mat.
“You get out on the mat, and it’s just you and one other guy. When you succeed or fail, you know it was all you,” he added. “You start to see the relationship between how hard you’re working and how successful you are.”
Beat the Streets is catered toward a different group of students than other academic or leadership programs, Kulczycki said.
“It’s a little more appealing to kids that might be headed down a bad path because it is a martial art, and it’s a little bit combative,” he said.
“Honestly, a lot of our kids are going to say, ‘I want to do this program because I want to learn to fight,’” Watterson said. “But they are going to learn not to fight outside the wrestling room.”
On the right foot
Now three weeks into the pilot program, the students’ abilities have skyrocketed — and with them, so has excitement for the program’s future.
Kulczycki said he was blown away by how fast the group at Nathan Bishop has learned. “These kids are picking up technique that I didn’t know until middle school or high school, and I started when I was 6,” he said.
“It’s been amazing so far, and kids love it,” Watterson said. “Kids don’t want to leave at the end of practice.”
Watterson said the program hit home for him the first practice when a temperamental student stormed out of the room after he was not first in line.
Watterson followed the student into the hallway, and asked, “Whenever you don’t get what you want, you are just going to leave? How do you think that’s going to work out for you?” The student fell silent, and Watterson asked him to give it one more chance.
“By the end of the practice, he was more hooked than anyone else,” Watterson said. “Those are the kids we want in this program.”
Watterson envisions success stories like this one occurring throughout Providence in the next two years, as Beat the Streets hopes to expand into all public middle schools in the city.
“If you had told me that it would be possible for (Beat the Streets) to go into all the middle schools in the next two years, I would have said initially that was an overreach,” Wood said. “But now that I’ve seen how quickly it’s catching on and how successful it is … I think it’s perfectly realistic.”
Though Watterson has won 57 wrestling matches for Brown in his career so far, this season he hopes to use his moves to open an avenue to success for middle school students.
“It’s not about creating wrestlers,” Watterson said. “It’s about creating kids that believe in themselves.”