Its been four years since Wakefield Middle School reopened after closing in 2013. Now, its one of the only public schools in the country to offer Judo as an elective.

Higher Ground, a nonprofit centered in building community in Tucson schools, is housed in Wakefield Middle School.

Higher Grounds CEO Jansen Azarias-Suzumoto has seen Judo as a building block to student success since starting the nonprofit in his living room nearly 20 years ago.

When we first started Higher Ground, martial arts was one of the first things we offered kids that we saw had a huge impact on their behavior, he said.

Hes brought Judo to schools all over Tucson’s southside for afterschool programs, but Wakefield Middle School is the first to offer it as an elective. Wakefield Middle School offered the class through Higher Ground while the school was closed, but that was put on hold during the pandemic.

Azarias-Suzumoto said now that the school is bringing it back in this way, its one out of only two public schools in the country. And were the only one out of those two, were actually doing whats called developmental judo. So its not just for competition, or high school and all of that, this is really development fundamentals, he added.

Azarias-Suzumoto and his team are building a curriculum based on research and theyre hoping it will be used in other schools.

We had research that showed improvements in executive functions and language acquisition skills for kids that were doing Judo, versus kids that werent doing Judo in one year time.

Wakefield Middle School reopened four years ago, and the school has had Josephine Lane as principal for less than a year. When she started her position, she saw the need for Judo for her students when discussing the possibility with the Higher Ground team. She shared some of the impacts shes seeing already.

Decreases in student discipline, we see more confidence. We also see students who are focusing more on how to organize their day and how to do their work. So it translates so well into what they do in their day in the other academic areas, said Lane.

That translation comes from what Judo teaches and how thats being used in the curriculum.

In Judo, theres the principle, youve got to control your head, because where your head goes, the body follows. So we teach kids, youve got to start planning. Youve got to control your emotions because where that is, that follows, said Azarias-Suzumoto.

The students are learning so much already, only two months into the classand one month into wearing their new



You have to work hard to get to where you are. And since like, where I came from, and barely knowing judo, barely knowing how to throw and do ground work, and seeing where I am now, like a very big improvement, said one student, Tony Salvador.

Its something both boys and girls at Wakefield Middle School are getting to experience.

I wasnt really big on going out there, and being in the spotlight and everything, so it really boosts up confidence and self-defense, said Izana McIver.

Higher Ground is working with USA Judo in building this curriculum to bring the elective to more schools.