Beat the Streets Providence Brings Wrestling to Middle School

The program aims to instill discipline while having fun.

Photography by Alex Gagne

(page 1 of 3)

Giselle Martinez tosses her long, dark hair over her shoulders and asks around for a ponytail holder. It’s a steamy May afternoon in the small gym at Del Sesto Middle School in Providence. Giselle, who is in the sixth grade, is about to wrestle Kevin Fuentes, who has a grade and a good few inches on her, and answers to the nickname “Curly Fries.”

Surrounded by kids ranging from sixty-eight pounds to more than 160, they’re part of Beat the Streets Providence, an after-school program that has brought the sport of wrestling into the city’s middle schools.

A lot of the smaller guys don’t want to go up against Giselle because she roughs them up a bit, their coach, Silas Murray, says. “Especially when kids look through the gym door and they’re like, ‘Oh, I saw you get beat up by Giselle!’ ”

“She’s very comfortable with the headlock,” he adds.

But Kevin doesn’t have a problem with wrestling her. A serious kid with a self- deprecating sense of humor, he wants to learn and, like some other kids attracted to the program, he had gotten bullied over the years. He started wrestling to defend himself, but found he liked the strategy behind the sport — anticipating his opponent’s next move.

Meanwhile, Giselle is already pretty tough. Short but strong, she uses what she learns in wrestling to get better at some of her other athletic pursuits, karate and jujitsu. And knowing she’ll get to spend part of the day grappling on the mat two afternoons a week helps motivate her to go to school.

Giselle shakes Kevin’s hand, and Murray blows his whistle. Giselle and Kevin face each other on the mat, surrounded by other paired-off wrestlers. He dives for her ankles and takes her down. “Did I win?” he jokes.

They start again. Giselle grabs the back of Kevin’s neck and then his ankles, eventually pinning him.

“I can’t breathe,” he says.

Giselle releases him, pulls him up and grins. Within a few seconds, they’re wrestling again.

They’re two of about 200 kids who learned the fine art of the takedown during the 2014 to 2015 school year at one of five of the city’s middle schools: Del Sesto, Roger Williams, Nathan Bishop, Gilbert Stuart and UCAP. The year is divided up into sessions and the schools compete against each other and in state and regional tournaments.

Beat the Streets Providence was started by Billy Watterson, a nationally ranked wrestler at Brown University. He took a year off school to launch the program in 2013, graduated in May and got a fellowship from Brown to continue running it. Other cities like New York City and Los Angeles also have their own Beat the Streets programs, but they are all autonomous, locally run organizations.

Watterson’s goal is to not only teach kids how to pin an opponent, but to provide them with academic support and match them up with mentors. He recruits fellow wrestlers as coaches.

“It’s something that I think is missing from their lives that kids at that age crave,” Watterson says. “They have so much energy they want to use, so much aggression they need to get rid of. And more than anything else, kids look for coaches. Especially kids that are struggling. They already have so much trouble respecting and listening to authority figures in their lives, but coaches they’ll listen to.”

A typical practice includes warming up with a game like sharks and minnows or laps around the gym. The coaches teach skills like the roll and escapes and have the wrestlers practice them in drills. Then the kids pair up to wrestle.  

“I try to tell them from the beginning, you guys are going to work hard, you’re going to sweat. There’s going to be days when you get hurt, there’s going to be days when you might shed some blood,” Murray says.

But unlike the body slams of professional wrestlers from World Wrestling Entertainment that were part of the attraction for some kids, Beat the Streets coaches teach strategy, how to anticipate and circumvent their opponent’s moves.

At meets, team members compete in three-minute matches. If one wrestler manages to pin the other to the mat, he or she wins the match. They can also earn points for escaping, takedowns and other moves. The team with the most points at the end of the matches wins the meet.

But Murray also tells his wrestlers it’s okay if they don’t win.

“If you’re losing completely, don’t give up or think ‘oh, I’m going to lose and the team loses.’ Just go out there and worry about yourself,” he tells them. “Everybody on the sidelines is going to cheer for you, no matter what.”

Then middle schools in Providence used to let out at 2:30,  thousands of kids headed onto the streets with not much to do.
In 2004, then-mayor David Cicilline worked with community organizations to launch the Providence After School Alliance (PASA), a public-private partnership that developed programs to keep kids busy for several hours after school.

The middle school segment is called the AfterZone. In the 2014 to 2015 school year, roughly 40 percent of the students in the schools that offer the AfterZone participated, about 1,700 students. Each middle school has a waiting list, and the two that aren’t currently part of the AfterZone would like to be, says Hillary Salmons, PASA’s executive director.

It’s a time in a kid’s life that can be a problem for many parents, no matter what their income level, Salmons says.

“Developmentally, the terrible twos and the middle school years are when the brain develops the most,” Salmons says. “It’s when human beings quest for creativity and innovation and challenge. They want to get beyond their family and their neighborhood and learn about the world and their peers. It’s a time when you really need to do experiential learning and it’s a time when you really need sports.”

More affluent families make sure their kids are involved in the arts and sports, Salmons says, using field trips and museum visits to enrich and provide context for what they’re learning during the school day.

“Low-income kids don’t have those opportunities,” she says. “They just don’t have access to them.”

While some parents and teachers do attend and support after-school activities, middle school students in Providence face some daunting statistics. Nearly 40 percent of children in the city live in poverty, according to Rhode Island Kids Count. And kids who are disengaged in middle school might not make it to high school graduation.  

“If you look at our test scores, we’re improving in fourth-grade reading and math, but they would fall off a cliff in eighth grade,” Salmons says. “When you put a huge amount of investment in early childhood math and reading in elementary, if you don’t keep supporting and scaffolding that during middle school, I think that accounts for the very high dropout rate in urban high schools in ninth and tenth grade.”

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