At Intermediate School 318 Eugenio Maria de Hostos, located in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, NY, the strategic thinkers are the athletes. Here a student’s success isn’t measured on the basketball court or football field, but on the chessboard.
The perennial powerhouse middle school of chess is often compared to the New York Yankees due to the 26 national titles the program has won since it started competing ten years ago. More than 60 percent of the Title I school’s students come from families with incomes below the federal poverty level. Yet, despite the disparaging economic gap, in recent years, the Brooklyn school has produced some of the greatest young chess minds in the nation. About half of the school’s 1,600 students take chess classes, and two of its star competitors, Justus Williams and James A. Black Jr. –both 13-years-old– are already nationally ranked as chess masters — both achieving the extraordinary feat by the age of 12. Chess is embedded in the culture of I.S. 318 and chess teacher Elizabeth Spiegel –who is an expert, a level below Black Jr. and Williams’ ranking of master– has cultivated a small after-school program into a national contender.
Last Sunday, in Minneapolis, the middle-schooler’s left with their most prestigious award to date. I.S. 318 became the first middle school team to win the United States Chess Federation’s National High School Championship. The conquering young heroes, comprised mostly of eighth graders, defeated top high schools like Stuyvesant of Manhattan, Edward R. Murrow of Brooklyn and Thomas Jefferson of Alexandria, Va., before edging out Manhattan’s elite Hunter College high school, who they tied for first place, but was able to take home the first-place trophy because I.S. 318 had better tie-breaker scores. Williams (2307) was the leading scorer with 5.5/7 and Black Jr. (2141) finished with 4.5/7.
“The difference in mental development between a junior high school kid and a high school kid is impossible to overstate,” Ms. Spiegel told The New York Times.
There are obvious important lessons about life and education here. Practice, hard work, and discipline are the core values of I.S. 318’s chess program, and the diligence has paid off. The club meets ever day after school until 4:30, in addition to the team’s many tournaments. Students are learning to think and discovering how to deepen the intensity of their focus in order to understand how to play better. Graduates and former players of I.S. 318 have gone on to attend the city’s best high schools, and many have received college scholarships. Rochelle Ballantyne, a recent graduate, former player and stalwart of I.S. 318, who currently attends the specialized high school Brooklyn Tech, has already secured a chess scholarship to the University of Texas-Dallas and she aims to be the first African-American female master in chess history.
The success of I.S. 318 chess program is captured in the new film, Brooklyn Castle. The documentary chronicles two years of the after-school program’s achievements that has turned these inner-city kids into national chess stars. The film, which was directed by Katie Dellamaggiore and co-produced by Nelson Dellamaggiore, Brian Schulz and John Forté –who is a former Fugee member and Grammy nominated artist– also looks at the challenges I.S. 318’s longtime principal, Fortunato Rubino, who died suddenly earlier this month, faced in maintaining the team through a time of citywide public school budget cuts. The travel budget for the team alone is about $70,000 and the program gets support from the nonprofit organization Chess-in-the-Schools, but a $25,000 grant from the Brooklyn Navy Yard Cogeneration power plant helped to pay for the chess team’s travel this year. The film won the audience award at this year’s South by Southwest Film Festival and the buzz around the film led Sony Pictures producer Scott Rudin to buy the rights to adapt it into a dramatic Hollywood feature.
For now, the hardware will just keep piling up for I.S. 318. The esteemed chess team will travel to San Diego for the National Junior High Championships next week– a contest that could now be viewed as child’s play to the National High-School champs.