The Dark Cloud Hanging Over the Feel-Good Inner City Education Story of the Week

You'd think the national champion chess team at Intermediate School 318 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, wouldn't have to worry about their program's continued funding. But you'd be wrong.

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Brooklyn Castle

The kids at Intermediate School 318 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, did something wonderful last week. They went to the national high school chess championship. And they came back with the first-place trophy.

That's right, a group of inner-city middle schoolers went up against the best high school teams in the country, and won. (They tied for first place with Manhattan's elite Hunter High School, but the trophy was theirs because they beat opponents that had more wins in the tournament.)

I.S. 318 is not a fancy school with tons of resources. Sixty percent of the student body comes from families with incomes below the federal poverty level.

But for years now, the school has run one of the most demanding, comprehensive chess programs in the nation, with a full-time chess teacher, Elizabeth Spiegel, who has built the team into a major force. From The New York Times coverage:

I.S. 318 is a perennial powerhouse, often sweeping middle school national championships against exclusive schools where more students can afford private lessons. A recent graduate, Rochelle Ballantyne, has secured a chess scholarship to the University of Texas-Dallas — though she is still a student at Brooklyn Tech — and aims to be the first African-American female master in chess history. Even before the big win, Magnus Carlsen of Norway, the No. 1 ranked player in the world, was scheduled to visit the students next week.

Feel-good stories don’t get much better-feeling than this one. Here’s a case in which kids from a tough urban environment prove that they can succeed at the national level. In which a financially strapped school inspires and enables its students to excel. So you’d think that the chess program at I.S. 318 would be seen as a model for urban educators, getting all the support it needed.

You’d be wrong about that.

Chess is not all that the I.S. 318 students have learned. They’ve also had a tough schooling in political reality. Because the chess program is an afterschool activity, it’s especially vulnerable to budget cuts. Round after round of those cuts have threatened the program’s viability. For years, the school has scrambled to cover the costs of travel required to compete at tournaments around the country, a struggle chronicled in the documentary Brooklyn Castle, which recently premiered at the SXSW Film Festival.

One of the school’s alumni, 15-year-old Pobo Efekoro, has created a petition at Change.org that explains just how important the program was to him, and how disappointed he is in the short-sighted approach to funding for afterschool programs that can enrich students’ lives, keep them out of trouble, and make it easier for their parents to hold down jobs.

In the petition, Efekoro writes about how he and his teammates were constantly wondering if they would be able to attend the competitions they had worked so hard to qualify for. How they sold candy to cover costs. How they lobbied the city to keep funding the program. The petition is well worth reading in full – Efekoro is an eloquent writer as well as a kick-ass chess player – but here’s a sample:

[P]arents and staff, along with the student government, got together and fought to keep the programs we knew were so vital to the 318 community. We sent hundreds and hundreds of emails to Joe Klein, then New York City Schools Chancellor. I think we broke his phone! And in the end, we got the school’s money back. But we wondered why we had to fight so hard to protect our educations, or how the city could so easily put a price on something we’d been taught was so priceless….

Education is not a bargaining chip to be used by politicians. It is a necessity that ensures the next generation can excel in an increasingly competitive world. It is a pathway, a gateway to success. Everything begins with a good education – and that means every aspect of education, including extracurricular activities and learning programs that happen after the “school day” has ended.

Efekoro, who was school president his last year at 318, is now an assistant chess coach there. He’s just a sophomore in high school, but like any good chess player, he’s thinking many moves ahead. “I hope that one day, when I am successful in a presidential run for the second time in my life, I can look back and realize that I’ve made the phrase ‘budget cuts’ obsolete,” he writes. “Until then, I hope you’ll join me in a show of support for afterschool and other quality learning programs that are changing lives every day -- and I should know, because they’ve changed mine.”

About the Author

  • Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.