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Cultivating Young Chess Masters in Some of St. Louis' Poorest Schools

Nakya Pearson discovered the joy of playing chess as a student in the Hazelwood school district. But when she transferred to the nearby Ferguson-Florissant district three years ago, she had trouble finding an after-school program that engaged her the way chess did.

She did not like basketball; the other after-school activities were "kind of boring," she said. 

That was until this past fall, when a partnership between the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis and Ascension, a healthcare company, brought chess to 17 elementary and three middle schools in Ferguson-Florissant.

That alliance was germinated from an innocent question from Frankie Ragone, a 10-year-old who lives in suburban St. Louis County and plays chess competitively. 

Over the summer, Frankie asked his father, Nick Ragone, whether all the schools in the area had chess club. Ragone, Ascension's chief of communications, didn't have the answer. And neither did anyone he asked at work the next day.

But a phone call to the Chess Club and Scholastic Center, where Ragone and son Frankie are members, revealed the answer. Many districts did not offer chess, but one of them—Ferguson-Florissant, which had a brand new superintendent—was looking to change that.  

What happened next were a series of quick steps that led Ascension to donate $45,000 to jointly sponsor the district's chess program.

"After-school activities are critical, critical for a child's academic success," Ragone said.  "And something as strategic as chess, learning it at a young age, and having something to do after school, seemed like a great program."

Some studies have shown that students who are taught chess had higher academic performance, including in areas such as math, spatial analysis, and non-verbal reasoning.

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Seizing on the opportunity, the Chess Club launched a corporate challenge to solicit more donations. The goal, according to Lauren Stewart, the development manager at the club, is to have chess programs in every school district in the region.

Companies like Emerson, Post Holdings, and UMB Bank, and a local resident, Laura Lueken, have donated to the challenge, allowing the club to provide chess instructors and support for the 2015-16 school year to the Hazelwood, Normandy, and Jennings school districts. All of those districts serve many poor, African-American students. 

"We have definitely made a mark in St. Louis," she said, "but we definitely have a long way to go." 

In a lot of ways the expansion makes sense. St. Louis has a rich chess tradition and routinely hosts chess championships. The U.S. Senate passed a resolution last year declaring the city the "Chess Capital" of the U.S. 

An International Chess Grandmaster Lends A Hand

The Chess Club and Scholastic Center also teamed up with Maurice Ashley, the first African American to become an international chess grandmaster. Ashley attended the Ferguson launch in September and plans to play an active role in the district's program.

Ashley, a Jamaican immigrant who grew up in the tough Brooklyn neighborhood of Brownsville, says he knows—not hopes—that the program will have positive and long-lasting effects on the students' lives.   

"It was just a wonderful idea to support those kids...who are so much more than the sum of the stories that we recently heard," said Ashley, who lives in New York City.

The chess programs are expanding after a tumultuous year for students and residents in the region. The year included the August 2014 shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, protests that interrupted schooling in some districts, intense media scrutiny, and the ensuing examination of race and policing in the region and nationally. In recent months there has been a redoubling of efforts focused on improving academic programs and opportunities at local schools.

Two of the state's unaccredited school districts, Riverview Gardens and the Normandy Schools Collaborative, are located in the region. The nearby St. Louis city school district is provisionally accredited. In November, the state announced that the Jennings school district had regained its accreditation after years of steady progress under the leadership of Superintendent Tiffany Anderson. Although St. Louis and Riverview Gardens made improvements, their statuses did not change. (Riverview Gardens' case may be revisited next year.) 

Chess is not expected to be a panacea for all that ails the school systems in the region, but it can be a "real tool in the toolbox for teachers [and] administrators who are trying to help make change in the community," Ashley said.

(The districts are also ramping up other efforts, including expanding Advanced Placement courses in Normandy, for example, and hiring more staff to help students with the non-academic issues that get in the way of learning.)

It's More Than a Game

"It's kind of this interesting discipline that's masking as a game," Ashley said.

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In chess, players are challenged every moment to make sound decisions—with real and immediate consequences if they do not make the right choices, he said.

"If you make an error, you'll end up losing the game despite the fact that you may have played a really good game for 40 moves," he said. "One mistake, and you could lose the game."

He continued: "So you have to be focused, concentrated. You have to be very disciplined in your thinking. You have to solve all these problems moment to moment. ... It's you playing against a determined opponent, who is trying to defeat you. You have to take all these factors into account and make the right move, time after time. And that is training for life."

That kind of training has made a real difference in the lives of students he has coached over the years, who have gone on to attend top universities, he said. 

"I've seen my students who may have not been interested in school, who may have not been inspired by their circumstances,  when they take up chess, they feel like they've found something they can chew on, that they can bite into," he said.  "And they have taken that training—that intellectual training that transfers so well into scholastics and into life—and really run with it."

Ashley said he can relate to those students, having grown up in similar circumstances. Chess, he said, helped to keep him on "the straight and narrow."

And if the students see him as a role model of what's possible if they take the game seriously, the modest Ashley said he would be honored.

The new chess program is just what Nakya had been looking for.

"It teaches you to think logically," she said. "I think it would be something I would be interested in competing in. I'd like to do that."

Her mother, Lakysha Jeffries, likes the new offering and that it's free to her daughter. 

"I was especially proud of her for having an interest like that," Jeffries said.  "One she is young; two she is female; and three it's a mental sport." 

Both Nakya and her mother said the game was helping her become more independent, confident, and think strategically when making decisions, not just on the chessboard, but also in life.

"It allows her to use her mind, and like she said, be strategic about making better decisions... as she becomes a young adult," her mother said.  "And then, just the fact that it is actually helping her to be more independent and in her schoolwork, I feel like that will be very helpful."

Top: Students at Walnut Grove Elementary School in the Ferguson-Florissant school district at the launch of the chess program last September.  Courtesy of Ascension 

Bottom: International Chess Grandmaster Maurice Ashley with students at Walnut Grove Elementary in September. Courtesy of Ascension

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