ENGLEWOOD — For many students at Earle STEM Academy, chess is more than just an afterschool club: It's part of the curriculum and the school culture.
Last year, chess coach and math teacher Joseph Ocol worked with 30 students a few days a week after school. This year, he's reaching close to 200, more than 40 percent of the school's 457 total student body.
Chicago Public Schools cut budgets throughout the district last school year, which affected the team, but they were still able to bring home multiple trophies. A GoFundMe page was created to help cover traveling costs and has raised more than $17,000 so far.
In an all-girls tournament in Chicago last spring, the Earle STEM squad competed against 64 schools from across the country and were one of only two African-American teams. The team's win was the first national championship trophy for the school.
Earle participates in a chess program called First Move. Throughout the school day, students go to Ocol’s class and practice.
Principal Cederrall Petties said incorporating chess into the school day helps teach students reasoning skills, problem solving and discipline. Through chess, the students are learning how to think more effectively, he said.
“I’m really impressed with where we’re going as a school, as it relates to the chess program,” Petties said. “Mr. Ocol is working with students as young as kindergarten through 8th grade. We’re extremely excited about it.”
He said he’s also excited about the school hosting another big tournament later in the year.
“This brings attention to what we’re doing in chess to others outside the community, so it’s great,” Petties said. “Now Englewood is being perceived in another light, a positive light.”
Students who competed on the team last year are happy to be back — many of them practiced over the summer to keep their skills sharp.
Both Tamya Fultz and Breanna Shaw were on the 2016 All-Girls National Champion Team. The seventh graders said they enjoy competing, but touring the White House and meeting President Barack Obama was very special, too.
The students were invited to meet the president earlier this month outside Air Force One while Obama was in Chicago.
"We got a chance to shake his hand and talk to him for a bit, but it was breathtaking for all of us to take a close glimpse of Air Force One from where he disembarked,” Ocol said, describing the moment as an experience of a lifetime.
No one in the group had ever seen Air Force One except in the movies, he said.
"Meeting the president, and getting a chance to shake his hand, was something that my students and I will forever cherish in our lives," he said.
Back in June the team visited the White House after efforts made by U.S. Rep. Danny Davis (D-Chicago), who started a campaign to get the students a visit with Obama. He called the national championship a “great accomplishment and a great achievement.”
Because of the graduation of Obama's eldest daughter Malia’s graduation, the president wasn’t able to meet the students in June during their visit.
Tamya, 12, said it was really cold outside the day they met him, but she was happy to have the opportunity.
“I got to shake his hand,” she said, adding that she was skeptical about getting a chance to meet him because when they went to the White House he wasn’t there.
Her teammate Breanna said she felt the same way, but was proud that their school was chosen out of hundreds of others. She said she recognized that the introduction, no matter how brief, was a great opportunity.
Taahir Levi plays chess after school with his father Andre Levi. [DNAinfo/Andrea V. Watson]
Taahir Levi, 8, joined the chess team last year and said that he really enjoys being a part of it.
“I like that I get to meet new people and I go to chess every day because it helps me think better,” he said.
Initially he thought chess would be a challenge “because once my teacher told me it’s a strategy game, I thought it was going to be hard,” he said.
He’s improved a lot, he and his father Andre said. Even though Levi plays, he said he hadn’t introduced the game to his son. He said he was happy when he told him he wanted to play chess at school.
“He’s picking it up fast,” he said, adding that he appreciates the opportunities that chess can bring.
Taahir also said that he liked meeting President Obama.
“It was fun and exciting, and he shook my hand,” he said.
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