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A boy hits a heavy bag as other young students also work on their boxing in a large gym.

After-school programs like Detroit’s Downtown Boxing Gym have filled large gaps created by the pandemic: keeping students socially and academically engaged, as well as providing rides and meals for their kids.

Di’Amond Moore / Detroit Free Press

How an after-school boxing program keeps students engaged during COVID

The fight to rebuild school communities after years of pandemic-era uncertainty.

After-school programs became a lifeline during the height of the pandemic for students like Harmonie Stewart, and they’ve only grown in significance in Michigan as school and community leaders seek ways to help students rebound from the aftershocks of COVID.

“I have been learning so much new material,” Harmonie said on a day last fall when she was learning about quadrants at the Downtown Detroit Boxing Gym, which has run an after-school program for years.

Here, students can learn how to box. But they can also receive homework and tutoring support in math and English, as well as science, technology, and engineering. Harmonie, a freshman at Detroit School of Arts, said the class has helped her “stay prepared for class.”

Before this school year, many Detroit students had spent much of their educational time learning online after the pandemic first closed schools nearly two years ago. Remote instruction took an academic and emotional toll on young people, leaving them disconnected from their peers during a time when they may have needed them most.

That, in part, is how after-school programs have been able to thrive. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced earlier this month that she wants to increase state funding for before-school and after-school programs, saying such programs “help students get back on track academically by ensuring a safe place outside of school hours.”  More than $6 billion in federal COVID relief dollars are also helping, leading school districts to expand existing programs or create new ones.

When buildings “were shut down, these programs really stepped up,” said Erin Skene-Pratt, executive director of Michigan Afterschool Partnership, an umbrella organization that networks with out-of-school youth programs across the state. 

They did it by giving young people a safe place to take their online classes, by providing tutoring, and by providing spaces for students to get involved in extracurricular activities.

The Downtown Detroit Boxing Gym temporarily closed when the pandemic hit and Michigan shut down. But that didn’t stop its work. Soon after its closure, the staff was sending meals and schoolwork home to students who were enrolled in the program.

When it finally reopened in June of 2020, it began providing academic and extracurricular programs from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily. Students received three meals a day, a computer or laptop to continue their schoolwork, and a warm and safe place to go.

“I was like half mama, half teacher,” said Nicolle Johnson, director of academics at the gym and a former classroom teacher. “I had some kids that I would sit with and make sure they were on point.” 

The tutoring support, in particular, was helpful to Harmonie.

Without it, “I wouldn’t have been as focused,” she said.  

There are a number of after-school programs operating in Detroit schools and community agencies as well as across Michigan. The boxing gym said it was crucial to provide support to students who didn’t have parents or grandparents at home to assist with remote learning.

“Our kids didn’t have that. So we became that hub for them.” 

That after-school tutoring has continued to prove useful for Zion Dolly, a freshman at the University Prep Science & Math High School in Detroit. He has returned to a school year that has fluctuated between remote and in-person learning.

“The tutors themselves have been the most helpful. I find that their personalities and knowledge really help me to learn. I do better on my algebra tests now that I work with my tutor regularly,” he said.