By Marie LeBlanc, Community Partnerships Coordinator
Chess is not just a game of kings and pawns, queens and knights. For a group of middle schoolers from Brooklyn — and for thousands of other students here in DC and across the country — chess is a unique afterschool activity that impacts their lives both on and off the board. Catalogue nonprofit Chess Challenge in DC co-sponsored a sneak peek of the documentary film Brooklyn Castle last week, which profiles a student chess team from Brooklyn, New York, and invited Catalogue staff to have a look.
Brooklyn Castle tells the stories of five members of the chess team at a below-the-poverty-line inner city junior high school (Intermediate School/IS 318) that has won more national championships than any other in the country. The film follows the challenges these kids face in their personal lives as well as on the chessboard, and is as much about the sting of their losses as it is about the anticipation of their victories.
IS 318 is a Title I school, where 70% of the students come from low-income households. Many are the first in their families with dreams of finishing high school and attending college. Chess offers many of these students a way out and up, improving not only their academic performance but also their life skills — the ability to make decisions, think analytically, and understand that not all choices are as easy as black and white. The school’s record-breaking streak of national chess championships offered students the chance to travel to other parts of the country on the school’s dime, a rare opportunity for many public school students today.
I found the story of high school freshman Rochelle one of the most inspiring. While a student at IS 318, Rochelle became the top chess player on the team, ranked just under the United States Chess Federation’s Expert level. When she graduated onto high school, Rochelle continued playing, with the goal of becoming the first African-American female Chess Master in the history of chess. While competing towards that goal during her freshman year, Rochelle won a four-year scholarship to the University of Texas at Dallas, guaranteeing her ability to go to college and continue playing chess.
Here in DC, chess offers some of those same benefits to public school students, through the programs of Chess Challenge in DC. Working with 260 students in 20 different schools (mostly in Wards 7 and 8), Chess Challenge helps DC students grow academically and personally through a chess-based curriculum. For more information on Chess Challenge, and other nonprofits that offer innovative afterschool programming, check out other Catalogue education-based nonprofits online.