Student champ: How chess changed my life


Director Katie Dellamaggiore and Pobo Efekoro on “The Daily Show.”

A new documentary  film called “Brooklyn Castle” tells the story of students on a championship chess team at a New York City middle school and how budget cuts are affecting the program. Below, student Pobo Efekoro, who stars in the film, explains how he learned to play chess in an afterschool program and how the experience changed his life. Pobo, now a high school sophomore in Brooklyn, has petitioned Congress to continue funding quality afterschool programs.

 By Oghenakpobo (Pobo) Efekoro

I’ve watched a lot of television comedy shows, but never in a million years did I think I would end up on the set of “The Daily Show” being interviewed by Jon Stewart! That’s crazy! I felt that my life just turned upside down that evening. However, even though Jon Stewart compared my presidency in middle school to the president of the United States walking into a fiscal crisis, we had some important topics to talk about, like why afterschool programs are important and how afterschool programs like the I.S.318 chess team in Brooklyn, New York—the subject of the new inspiring documentary film, “Brooklyn Castle”— is being impacted by tough budget cuts. This afterschool program, along with many other programs in I.S.318, helped me become who I am and also landed me a spot on The Daily Show!

 My name is Oghenakpobo Efekoro, but most people refer to me by my nickname, Pobo. I’m a student at Forest Hills High School in Forest Hills, New York. However, I’m best known for being an alumnus of my middle school chess team, I.S.318 in Brooklyn, New York. Most people don’t think “chess” when they hear “Brooklyn,” but something special is going on in this school. I.S.318 has won the most national chess championships of any junior high school in the United States! I.S.318 became the first middle school to win a national high school chess championship in the history of U.S. scholastic chess and was featured on the front page of the New York Times. But most importantly, behind these chess championships are the great students who work extremely hard to bring home the trophies year in and year out and the great teachers, Mr. John Galvin and Ms. Elizabeth Vicary, who make the program really special.

I played on the chess team for three years and won a total of five national chess championships. I enjoyed the program because it was a great tool for making me who I am today. I gained the ability to be patient through sitting down at the chessboard and just being able to sit there for hours analyzing the different positions I was presented with. Also, I gained the ability to plan. I can plan ahead and plan how I will execute certain objectives and get to where I need to go in life. The chess program has also given me a resounding work ethic. I’m always working all the time doing things that are constructive for me and for other people and that’s very important. The chess program was also a great place for me to socialize with my friends after a hard day’s work in the classroom. All of these key skills I learned from the game of chess, and the chess program at I.S.318 helped me become who I am today.

Unfortunately, this chess program that has experienced so much success and helped so many kids is constantly under siege by budget cuts from the New York City Department of Education. Each year is another tough battle to keep the chess program alive for the kids who so dearly love it. The cuts have forced I.S. 318 to pare back what it can provide for the students. It used to use to pay for the team’s travel costs, but now can’t afford that. And it also cut chess club back from two hours to an hour and a half, which makes a huge difference.

 When I was student president of I.S.318, the student government, in collaboration with the staff, teachers, and students, fought an unfair mid-year budget cut in 2010 from the City’s Department of Education, and we succeeded in getting the money back into our school budget, saving the chess program. Even though we won this battle, the school continues to get cut every year, forcing the chess team to cut back on its resources even as the team continues to win championships. These fights are starting again this year, and 318 is threatened with a budget cut from the city, even though it could win another couple of national championships. The budget cuts that the I.S.318 chess team is experiencing dampen the spirits of students who are working hard and producing exceptional results. I.S.318 continues to persevere, working to win chess championships in the face of budget cuts and defying the odds, but the continuing fight is dampening the spirits of every student.

 I know what afterschool programs can do because I was a part of them. I’m ahead one year in high school math because I was able to take algebra classes after school in I.S.318. I’m a five-time national chess champion because of afterschool chess at I.S.318.  I’m a student athlete in high school because of Intramural Football afterschool in I.S.318. These programs, along with countless others, continue to benefit the lives of the students in I.S.318. And programs like them are doing the same for students around the nation!

 As Jon Stewart said on The Daily Show, “There is a program at this school that is clearly lighting up these children’s hearts and minds and bringing out the absolute best in them, and the first thing we do is say, ‘Well that’s the thing that has to go.’”

Programs just like these are lighting up the hearts and minds of children every day, keeping them engaged in something constructive and special, rather than letting them be out on the streets doing nothing. Afterschool programs help kids with school and life, and give them the skills they need to move forward with their lives and to benefit society. But if afterschool programs go, we won’t have these rewards and won’t reap those benefits for society.

 

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · December 12, 2012