For a few hours each week, 17-year-old Brandon McCracken slips into a "Gi" to learn the art of meditation and the principles of taisabaki" - evasive Aikido movements to slip an opponent's grasp.

Aikido - a defensive and non-competitive Japanese martial art - isn't actually part of the core curriculum at the Cecil Alternative Program in Elkton, but director Lou Guertin is introducing students like Brandon to Aikido to help relieve stress and steady their focus.

"Aikido teaches participants to prevent and de-escalate aggression. It helps students reduce stress and emphasizes the importance of being calm and focused," said Guertin, who supervises the Cecil Alternative Program for Specialized Education Services Inc. (SESI). "Aikido is helping our students learn respect and boost their self-discipline and confidence."

"I am learning to defend myself by rolling out of an opponent's hold, but each lesson starts with stretching and meditation, and ends with meditation to wind down," said McCracken, an 11th-grader the SESI's Cecil Alternative Program. "Our sensi stresses the importance of respect for others."

McCracken is among eight students in SESI's alternative program who study Aikido for two hours each week at World Aikido Aikikai Inc. in Newark under 7th Degree Black Belt Shihan Zenko Okimura, who provides students with meditation training as well as instruction in Aikido movements.

"We want our students to take the principles of Aikido off the mat and into the classroom and into their daily lives at school or at home," said Guertin, who has studied Aikido since he was a teenager and is close to attaining a black belt.

Cecil County Public Schools refer their at-risk students, grades 6-12, to SESI's alternative program - located in the district's Providence School - for 45 days after they have been suspended from their regular schools for disciplinary reasons.

In the program, students continue with their regular course curricula in a highly-structured classroom setting and have access to social workers and counselors, Guertin explained.

"One of SESI's hallmarks is that we go the extra mile to implement innovative techniques to educate at-risk students and students with special-needs. Using Aikido as an instructional and motivational tool is terrific example of that," said Michael Kaufman, SESI's president and CEO.

Guertin started the pilot program in January and, if successful, there are plans to offer Aikido instruction to students at High Road School of Delaware in Wilmington and the High Road School of Perryville, he said.

More information about SESI's Cecil Alternative Program and Specialized Education Services Inc. is available at: www.sesi-schools.com.

Specialized Education Services, Inc. (SESI), based in Yardley, Pa., is one of the nation's premier providers of specialized education for children with learning, language, behavioral and social challenges. It operates 49 schools in 12 states and the District of Columbia.

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