Benefits across the board

17th November 2006 at 00:00
Making the moves that can change children's lives. Glyn Barlow reports on the healing power of school chess

The time: 9:50am. The place: South Bronx, New York City. The weather: cold.

Pieces move "shark-like" and menacing: "Check," says my opponent. I narrow my eyes to look intimidating. "Do you have something in your eye?" My opponent asks innocently. "No" I say hurriedly, now embarrassed. My opponent slides the queen diagonally three spaces, "check mate". My chess trauma is over. "OK fifth graders, time for recess." My opponent hops down from her chair, flashes me a toothy smile and disappears.

Chess-in-the-Schools (CIS) in New York is the world's largest schools'

chess project and responsible for one of America's most successful interventions into the classroom curriculum - credited with improving academic performance and attitude across the board. The programme targets socially disadvantaged schools in which at least 60 per cent of students are eligible for a free or cheap school lunch.

It was founded in 1986 to "spread the word" to a few schools dotted around Manhattan and The Bronx. Today it has 120 elementary and junior high schools, instructing 30,000 pupils. Over the past 20 years, it has taught 360,000 New York children to play and there are 100 schools on the waiting list. CIS is a charity; the scheme is free to schools and funded through philanthropic donations totalling $4 million (approximately pound;2 million) annually. A dedicated chess coach is assigned to each school taking part to teach chess as a classroom subject and organise an after-school club.

The effects of introducing chess into the schools appear quite striking. In 1991 and 1996, Stuart Margulies, an educational psychologist, conducted studies on the effects of chess on reading scores. The studies, which centred on schools in the South Bronx and Los Angeles, showed that pupils who entered chess programmes made greater gains in reading scores than their non-playing peers. Dr Margulies also concluded that pupils with reading difficulties particularly benefited from learning to play.

In 1999 he returned to measure the impact chess had on emotional intelligence, interviewing 120 fifth graders, half of whom were enrolled in the CIS project. Pupils were asked questions about confidence, moods, goals and empathy towards others. The results were startling, with 91 per cent of CIS pupils being rated as successful in real-life situations, while non-chess players achieved only a 64 per cent success rate.

To understand why this might be, you have to go along to a school where chess is being played. At the Yung Wing Elementary School in Chinatown, considered one of the best public elementary schools in New York, chess is imparted with ebullience by Olga Sagalchik, a master level player originally from Minsk; her enthusiasm is infectious.

Tiny hands wave in the air desperate to be given the opportunity to answer her questions. Ways to solve chess puzzles are discussed, with even the most far fetched answers rewarded with generous praise. Ms Sagalchik says:

"Chess helps to improve memory. Once basic rules and opening moves are mastered, checkmate positions can be studied. Encouraging students to look at reasons behind moves improves comprehension and encourages flexible thinking".

Across the river in Brooklyn lies Eugeno Maria Dehostos Junior High, home to the best eighth grade chess team in the US.

Elizabeth Vicary, a top US player and CIS instructor, coaches pupils in class, at lunchtimes, in after school clubs and over weekends. This chess immersion has resulted in the whole school, not just the chess team, performing significantly above similar schools in New York. Ms Vicary believes that a chess team is an alternative to sports teams and can deliver the same morale boost as any successful football team.

It can raise the self-esteem of a peer group and if a child becomes an accomplished player, then achieving in other disciplines such as science, maths or languages, becomes possible.

Some of the CIS youngsters have gone on to national or even international success in the game. For others it has been a life changing event for very different reasons. Shelanthia Griffiths, 17, who takes part in the programme, says: "I could have been another ghetto casualty. Many kids I know are already parents, failing school, selling or using drugs. That could have been my life, but chess saved me, it taught me there are always other options"

Glyn Barlow, a teacher, is facilitating a pilot chess coaching scheme due to begin in January at The Newhaven School, a pupil referral unit, in Greenwich, London.

The power of chess

An improved attitude toward school and improved attendance

Increased self-confidence and respect for others

Enhanced problem-solving, logic and reasoning skills

Organised work habits and increased patience and persistence

Improved emotional control and mood management

Sustained efforts to achieve personal goals

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