Dressed in $600 worth of armor and gear, 13-year-old Jayden Figueroa lunged forward with a bamboo sword in hand and struck another student on the head.
Middle School student Janiah Glapion, 13, before a Kumdo class at KIPP Lanning Square Middle School.
Jose F. Moreno
Middle School student Janiah Glapion, 13, before a Kumdo class at KIPP Lanning Square Middle School.

He was one of a dozen kids warming up inside KIPP Lanning Square Middle School’s gymnasium on Wednesday afternoon for the weekly class in Kumdo — an elite Korean martial art that stems from feudal Japan’s samurai sword-fighting and inspired the light-saber duels in the Star Wars movies. Kendo is its Japanese counterpart.

The next hour was filled with stomping and shouting as barefoot students raced through a handful of drills, but ended on a relaxing minute of meditation.

"The meditation at the end is my favorite part. It helps me clear my mind of any anger from the day," said Figueroa, who sometimes practices sparring at home with a broom to improve his skills.

In the U.S., Kumdo is an expensive recreational activity typically only found at Ivy League universities or private academies. But Cherry Hill-based martial arts school SYK Sword Academy contacted the Camden school last year and offered free instructional classes. 
Middle School student Yandel Tirado (right), 10,  takes part in a Kumdo class at KIPP Lanning Square in Camden. Kumdo is an elite Korean martial arts sport, often called the golf or polo of martial arts because the gear and uniforms are expensive.
Jose F. Moreno
Middle School student Yandel Tirado (right), 10,  takes part in a Kumdo class at KIPP Lanning Square in Camden. Kumdo is an elite Korean martial arts sport, often called the golf or polo of martial arts because the gear and uniforms are expensive.

The children are receiving world-class training. Leading the class is SYK Academy owner and master Soo Young Kim, who said he was the youngest person in Kumdo history to receive a sixth-rank Black Belt at age 33.  Kim began practicing Kumdo at age 12 and has since won numerous titles, including first place at the All U.S. Kendo Federation Tournament in 2009.

It's unusual to find Kumdo in a public school setting, let alone in a city like Camden, said instructor Chris Johnson, 47, of Voorhees. He calls Kumdo the "golf of martial arts" because it is so expensive. A number of the school's splintered bamboo swords are wrapped with purple tape to save money.

The school purchased new and used equipment to get the program started, including the swords, or jukdo, and the armor, called hogu. KIPP budgeted $5,000 per year toward the class.

"Kumdo clubs are usually filled with doctors, lawyers, accountants, who have means to buy this stuff… But this is a very beneficial martial art for students," said Johnson, a lifelong martial arts enthusiast who re-entered the Kumdo scene three years ago with his daughter.

Coaches often say Kumdo is perfect for a school setting because it teaches discipline and concentration.

It's not a free-for-all. Competitors can only score points by striking their opponent in the correct manner in one of four places: the head (mori), wrist (sunmok), waist (hori), or throat ("cheer-rum"). Players must shout, stomp, and hit in that order. At KIPP, they don't aim for the throat.

On top of that, students need to maintain their balance while swinging.

Instructor Abe Summers, 35, of Philadelphia, says this preciseness instills focus and self-confidence in students.

Soo Young Kim helps Janiah Glapion with her armor minutes before a Kumdo class.
Jose F. Moreno
Soo Young Kim helps Janiah Glapion with her armor minutes before a Kumdo class.

"A few of the kids have told us we're tougher than the football team," said Summers, who practices Kumdo with his 8-year-old son. "A lot of it is about being confident in yourself… that ability to commit to your movements in the moment."

These skills are valuable off the court, too, said basketball coach Matt George, who oversees after-school activities. Kumdo, which means "way of the sword," is based on philosophical principles that strengthen character.

"It's made a difference in the classroom," George said. "Some of the kids are not the most outgoing students, especially with the middle school level, but this program builds self-esteem."

Tying his uniform before practice began, Figueroa echoed that sentiment.

Since joining in October, Figueroa said he's more attentive in class and can write essays without getting distracted. Figueroa— also the school's chess club captain— credits his improvement to Kumdo's meditative element.

"My concentration wasn't good in class. We'd be taking a test, and I'd doze off or something," he said. "But with this, now I can write a three-paragraph essay without thinking about anything else."

All the practice will pay off in May, when students participate in Kumdo's Eastern U.S. Championship in May at KIPP Lanning Square Middle School. Adults and children from across the region will compete.