Freed by Chess, Cornered by D.C. Priorities
By Marc Fisher

Washington Post (Tuesday, April 29, 2003; Page B01)
 

 
Deep inside a decrepit Anacostia school building with a deadbolted front door, down the hall from the teacher bellowing, "Get your damn face out of his damn face," beneath one of the Soviet-style wall posters that the District schools never seem to get enough of ("Competency Requires That Workers Are Able To Productively Use: Resources, Information, Interpersonal Skills . . . "), despite every barrier to success you could possibly imagine, there's magic inside Mr. Bennett and Ms. Sanker's Chess Club room.

Every student at the Moten Center, the District's elementary school for 100 emotionally disturbed children, had been removed from another school because of behavior problems. These are children, many from homes of harrowing dysfunction, who have been labeled incapable of learning.

To hear that, to see this place, to know what's in store for them and then to see them soar is at once encouraging and heart-rending.

Children who are years behind in math master chess notation in a few weeks. "Qxh7+," coach Vaughn Bennett writes on the board. Instantly, students shout out the next move.

Children for whom school has been a never-ending series of suspensions listen in rapt silence as Bennett speeds through combinations of moves that a layman cannot hope to follow.

Children who've been diagnosed with attention-deficit and bipolar disorders pick up chess here in days. Within a few months, they are competing against kids from regular schools -- and winning.

Next week, 12 of these children are scheduled to fly to Nashville -- for all but one, it would be the first time on an airplane -- to compete in the National Scholastic Chess Championship.

But the D.C. school system, strapped for resources and equipped with often-puzzling priorities, does not support the chess program -- not one cent. "Unfortunately, you still have an atmosphere more committed to basketball and football than to chess," says Bennett, a former D.C. firefighter who teaches chess at Moten and several other schools. To do this, he must work nights for UPS.

Despite donations from the United Black Fund and Club Elite nightclub, a benefit show by a D.C. police band, and candy and hot dog sales at school ($143), the Moten Center remains $2,000 short of the $7,800 it needs to make the trip. The school has no money to pay Bennett, who has donated his time two afternoons a week -- plus weekends -- for three years.
 

"You know these children have the most extreme attention-deficit disorders, and then you walk in here and see the concentration... They stay at it for hours -- it makes you think about those diagnoses. Their behavior has interrupted their learning, but obviously they have great capacity to learn."
 
~ Herbert Boyd, Jr., Principal, Moten Center


Principal Herbert Boyd Jr., teacher Patricia Sanker and other staff members have kicked in cash. Staffers also contribute weekends, shuttling kids to matches.

They do this because they see the impact of this ancient game on children who have been declared failures, tarred with psychiatric labels.

"You know these children have the most extreme attention-deficit disorders, and then you walk in here and see the concentration," Boyd says. "They stay at it for hours -- it makes you think about those diagnoses. Their behavior has interrupted their learning, but obviously they have great capacity to learn."

Teachers at Moten see marked improvement in reading and math performance among children on the chess team. Some states have been impressed enough by studies of the game's impact on children to incorporate it into their curricula.

"I have children who received medication to go to school every day, but their parents don't give it to them for tournaments or my classes, and you'd never know it," Bennett says.

At last year's championship tournament in New York City, Moten's sixth-graders came in 18th of 30 teams; fifth-graders were eighth among 33; and fourth-graders landed ninth among 27. The Moten children were the only ones from a special education school.

The Moten team has quite a collection of trophies. It would like to earn more. But no trophy is as rewarding as 12-year-old Kwah-Preme Mitchell, saying he loves chess because he likes "to concentrate and be quiet and play," or Kenneth Jones, also 12, imagining himself on that plane next week: "It'll be like a new experience, like when I get older and I go all over the U.S. in a VW Beetle convertible. I've seen photos of it, but one day I'll see the real thing."

To help the Moten chess team, call the school at 202-698-1212.
 
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A50266-2003Apr28.html
 


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