Sunshine Connections: “Brooklyn Castle” inspiration for Florida chess-in-school programs

All Roads Lead To Brooklyn

October 4, 2013 By Palmer Hasty For Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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The award-winning documentary film “Brooklyn Castle” continues to inspire city government officials in Florida, who are trying to incorporate academic chess programs into the lower grades. Learning chess has proven to strengthen a child’s ability to exercise memory, pattern recognition and decision making.   

For example, earlier this year in Hungary, the Hungarian Institute for Educational Research and Development released a supplement to the National Curriculum that makes chess an available subject for elementary schools.  Last year, the European Parliament adopted a written resolution titled “Chess in School” to draw attention to chess as a teaching tool, because the European Parliament believes learning chess has direct connections to academic performance. Forty-two other countries around the world require chess in their curriculum.

News for those who live, work and play in Brooklyn and beyond

Directed by Greenpoint resident Katie Dellamaggiore, “Brooklyn Castle” is a film that documents the personal struggles, and the triumphs of five students from the Jr. High School Chess Team at Brooklyn’s IS 318.

IS 318 is a below-the-poverty-line school that has had to fight as hard for its limited resources as the school chess team to win national championships. Nevertheless, IS 318 has won more national chess championships than any other Jr. High in the nation. Dellamaggiore’s critically acclaimed film will kick off National Chess week on Monday, Oct. 7as a feature on the PBS series Point of View (POV).

In Florida, where the film has received a lot of press across the state, “Brooklyn Castle” has also inspired some city politicians to become proactive in their efforts to incorporate chess into the curriculum of elementary schools, while others around the state build and supervise community chess programs until the local school boards can be convinced of its practical academic value.

For example, in Sunrise, Mayor Mike Ryan launched a community chess club while still a Sunrise PTA president several years ago. In a recent interview with the Brooklyn Eagle, Ryan said, “I was overwhelmed with the interest, especially from parents,” adding, “Parents who were intently interested in how what their children learned from playing chess could benefit their academic lives.”

During the first three years of Ryan’s chess club endeavor, all 11 public schools in Sunrise, plus two other schools that included a private school, participated in his chess club. Ryan himself donated chess sets to the public schools. By the second year of the program, they were holding tournaments and generated interest from the Sunrise Chamber of Commerce and local businesses. “They wanted to know how they could help,” Ryan said.

Ryan is also a big fan of the film. “After I saw Brooklyn Castle, I purchased the movie and used it as background during chess tournaments.” Ryan thinks “Brooklyn Castle” should not only inspire students, but also educators “to put chess in school curriculum, especially in the lower grades. We know it will pay off when kids reach middle and high school.”  

The mayor also plans to initiate public showings of the film. “It’s the first time a chess movie promoted the idea of chess in the schools – it’s unique – it’s not a novel idea.  It’s an idea for which the time has come, and it can be done efficiently.  It’s unique in that it’s like a road map for parents and educators.”

With help from America’s Foundation for Chess, Ryan is closer to realizing his dream of incorporating chess into the lower grade curriculum in Broward County. The foundation’s “First Move” program is an award-winning in-classroom curriculum that uses chess as a learning tool for 2nd and 3rd graders.   

The Brooklyn Eagle also spoke with Kathi Cirar, director of programming and training at the Foundation For Chess and First Move. Working together with Ryan and the Broward School Board, Cirar has orchestrated the implementation of First Move into three Sunrise elementary schools which represents overall a chess curriculum in 40 separate classrooms.  During the interview with the Eagle, Cirar said, “And we’re negotiating with a fourth school.”

Cirar continued: “It’s important to note that First Move is not an after school program. First Move is part of the classroom curriculum.  In Sunrise First Move will be in the 2nd and 3rd grade classes once a week.  Being in the classroom emphasizes the academic element and allows all students to participate.”   

During the last week of September, a proud Ryan sent a press release to the Broward Education Advisory Board announcing the news: For the first time in Broward County, three elementary schools were incorporating chess into their 2nd and 3rd grade curriculum.  As a direct result of Ryan’s involvement and leadership, funding for the program came from First Move and the Sunrise Police Department forfeiture funds.  

Mayor Ryan couldn’t be happier. “It’s an important statement. This is a first for Broward County and Broward County is the sixth largest school district in the country. We hope the word gets out.”

Concluding the interview, Ryan said; “Seeing Brooklyn Castle changed my perspective as to the reality of using chess as an academic tool in the lower grades.”

Some other city officials in Florida who are still dealing with logistics and local politics are developing community chess programs in hopes that it will set an example, and encourage city governments and school boards to incorporate a chess curriculum in the lower grades.

For example, in Riviera Beach, where Shelby Lowe was a city councilman last year, he also thought a chess curriculum in the schools would help students academically.

During an interview with the Brooklyn Eagle, he added with a laugh; “Learning chess as a competitive endeavor also teaches them how to behave better.”

Lowe learned chess as a child, and played a lot of chess when he served in the U.S. Navy.  While still a city councilman in 2012, he got the idea of a K-12 after-school chess league for Riviera Beach. In his words, “I thought the local kids needed a challenging game like chess to focus on, that would not only promote learning, but also provide a safe haven for hundreds of kids who had to spend so much time at home alone after school.”  

Lowe said that in Riviera Beach. there were just not enough programs that emphasized learning. A friend of Lowe, John Burgess, was conducting a reading program for kids at the time. He introduced Lowe to “Brooklyn Castle” and to the film’s executive producer, Robert McClellan. McClellan is also marketing director of the U.S. Chess Federation.

Lowe was immediately inspired by the film and decided that “it would be a good model for an afternoon chess program in the community.”  He met with McClellan in Orlando and arranged for a screening of the film for the local chess enthusiasts and parents who were interested in having their kids participate. At Lowe’s request, McClellan also put together a training program for the men and woman who had volunteered to be chess coaches.

Earlier this year, Lowe withdrew his city council seat to run for mayor of Riviera Beach.  And though he lost that election, he hasn’t slowed down his efforts to continue building a community chess league. He says he has close to 100 students from all the schools in the area prepared to join the league with local chess players from community groups and neighborhood associations offering to help with training. So far, Lowe has generated interest from PNC Bank, the Singer Island Rotary Club and other local business owners in providing funds for supplies. Lowe himself said he will supply the chess boards.  

Since leaving office, Lowe works with current city councilman Terrence Davis. Davis, a chess player himself and a substitute teacher, said that he is excited about the opportunity and the benefits of eventually bringing a chess curriculum into the Riviera Beach schools.  

Davis said that he and Lowe have been working on logistics, talking with school principals and superintendents, deciding on which schools to target for a curriculum based program.  

McClellan was realistic, and hopeful after working with potential chess instructors in Riviera Beach: “The politics in Riviera Beach were not ready for a school program at that time, but a successful community program, that includes students, might help serve as inspiration and encourage them.”

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