The room was quiet as students pondered their next move. Blue and yellow chess pieces scattered across the board. Eyes glued to the game were paired with quick slaps on the timer. This was the last tournament of the season.
Children from Overbrook, Mitchell and Morton elementary schools gathered in a basement-level room of Blankenburg Elementary School to complete the regular chess tournament season. The results of those final matches would result into teams playing in the playoff tournament.
The Blankenburg team led the After School Activities Partnership (ASAP) chess program and prepared for the playoff tournaments at the end of the month.
Created in 2002, ASAP provides Philadelphia youth after school recreational activities to engage them academically and socially.
ASAP Chess Support Coordinator, Frank J. White said that he saw students develop essential skills as a result of participating in chess.
“I think the biggest growth you see in students is confidence. You see at the beginning, they just want to play the game. As they continue to play the game, you see growth and begin to gain the confidence to challenge adults and that’s something that’s really impressive,” White said.
Third-grade teacher and Mitchell School coach, Jason Bui, said he hears stories of students playing their fathers and uncles and how important that is for them. Bui said he sees the confidence in his students when they win at tournaments, too.
“There’s a lot of pride when they win that medal, when they win that match and we always announce it the next day at school. They walk around with their head held high,” Bui said.
Sixth-grade teacher and Overbrook Elementary coach, Joel Jaroch, explained how he gages what his students learn by being involved with the chess team.
“To me the biggest thing is, no matter how bad it goes for them, they still come back. Even if they take a tough loss, they keep coming back. I think it builds they’re self-confidence,” Jaroch said.
Blankenburg coach, Mikyeil El-Mekki, said the ASAP tournaments help students and relationships between other schools.
“I’m really proud to be involved with this. Not just with my students at Blankenburg, but just as fellow coaches, peers, the unselfishness, the kindness you see when other coaches are reaching out to your students. Coaches not being over competitive, coaches teaching students from another school a move and strategy. It’s really a beautiful thing, something I don’t see at any other school,” El-Mekki said.
Although the tournaments provide after-school enrichment, Blankenburg students have opted to skip their weekly recess period to play chess. With their initiative, El-Mekki brought in books and taught them how to study puzzles and learn strategies. Unless there is a competition, students have one after-school practice a week on Thursdays.
“Just seeing what chess offers to students, seeing the connections to the academics. The new opportunities for them to expand their mind, expanding their sense of community, making new friends, traveling, it’s the best game,” El-Mekki said.
He also learned to play at a young age, but did not have the opportunities his students have specifically on the competitive level. However, El-Mekki said working as a coach introduced him to much more.
In 2006, he joined ASAP and started the program at Blankenburg. As a previous football and track coach, El-Mekki admits that gaining an initial interest among students was a learning process.
“I start working with younger students. I’m at the point where I’m teaching kindergarteners. It’s a slow process, but we underestimate the genius of our youth and chess is a game that shows intelligence. I’ve seen that children are able to grasp that idea and see themselves getting smarter and being able to see no matter what their strengths and weaknesses are, that there is a way that their intelligence plays out on the board.”
El-Mekki calls himself Super Nerd, addressing the issue of peer pressure.
“We changed the culture here. Being smart and showing smart, that’s what’s cool.”
Older students of the Blankenburg team are encouraged to be leaders and mentor younger students.
Fifth-grader, Deon Sloan-Hughes is the team’s captain. Sloan-Hughes said he began playing in first grade.
“I started in first, [my sister] started in second. I started eating lunch in this room then [Coach El-Mekki] asked me if I wanted to play chess and I said, ‘Yes.’ He taught me all the stuff and I became advance,” Sloan-Hughes said.
“Well, I was already playing chess when I was five and then I started playing at Blankenburg. I started to eat in the room and then my third year in school, I started playing chess,” fifth-grader McKale Morris said.
Kimberlynn Johnson, parent and mother of fifth-grader, Keith Graves, took photos of the children playing.
“For me personally, my son has been playing since third grade. I’ve seen a complete change in his attitude. In the beginning he didn’t take it so serious because he was, ‘This is boring mom,’ — and he was the one that told me he wanted to play. But, I just watched him as the years progressed. He’s so mature now. He takes his chess very seriously,” Johnson said. “Chess is helping balance out his behavior issues. It keeps him from being on the streets. I sit at home and he teaches my five-year-old to play right now. I don’t have the patience yet. He’s still trying to teach me, but I just love the fact that with coach El-Mekki, he brings these kids in here and just play chess. It’s a real positive atmosphere for the kids.”
According to Johnson, watching Sloan-Hughes, Morris and Graves play chess during the summer made an impact for their community.
“The kids are outside playing, but last summer I just watched Deon, McKale, and Keith sit outside and play chess on the porch. Of course they play basketball and football, they’re on the football team, but they made time for chess. I think it’s different for the community. The older guys in the community are like, ‘Wow these kids play chess.’ I watched them sit and play the older guys in the community. So, I think it’s good that they can teach other people. They’re passing on what they’re learning,” Johnson said.
Robert K. Benjamin is also a supportive parent who helps with tournament responsibilities. Benjamin praised El-Mekki for his coaching. When his daughter attended Blankenburg, Benjamin said he saw a change in his daughter, too.
“I see the difference he makes in these kids’ lives. It’s evidence that that those kids who do these kinds of activities, not only does it teach them strategies, it teaches them concentration and it helps in their classrooms. For some of these kids, just playing chess is the difference in their lives. You can see because I remember them two years ago and when I look at them now, [I’m] like, ‘That can’t be the same kid?’ But, chess is what changed them,” Benjamin said.