Committee Report

Open Doors: A Proposal to Increase Access and Create a Program of Excellence in District 112 Chess

May 6, 2008

Introduction

In March of 2008, the District 112 President’s Council of PTO’s and PTA’s appointed a committee to look into improving and expanding scholastic chess in the district. The initiative was sparked by a letter from a parent describing a successful program at Indian Trail Elementary School and suggesting that that program, or something like it, be expanded.

The core idea behind formation of the committee is that chess is unique among extra-curricular activities in its capacity to improve academic achievement, concentration, strategic thinking, consideration of alternatives, and social skills. These factors, supported by considerable research, help explain the explosive growth in scholastic chess in recent years and its incorporation into some school curricula.  (See our “Resources” section.)

The committee is comprised of representatives from virtually every school in the district, and includes chess program directors, after-school coordinators, PTO/PTA representatives, and chess parents.There are three chairs of the committee, one each from the district’s north, central, and southern sections. Committee members are listed below.

Problems with Existing Programs

The committee first identified problems it wished to address. First, some schools have no chess programs at all. Even where such programs exist, we found the following:

Inadequate instruction. Many programs offer little coaching or provide instruction only to beginners. Stronger and more experienced players often grow bored with these programs and drop out.

High cost. Most existing programs rely on outside companies and cost between $10 and $15 per student per session. These programs invariably serve a small number of families.

High costs result from the fact that most clubs receive no outside funds. Only two PTO’s in the district (Indian Trail and Braeside) presently support chess.

Low attendance. Most programs in the district serve between 10 and 20 students. Clubs this size are too small to allow multi-tiered instruction. In addition, club members grow tired of playing against the same small group of participants. Indian Trail, which is supported by its PTO, has approximately 40 members and is expected to grow next year.

Lack of permanence. Many clubs are run by parents, who are understandably reluctant to continue once their children move on to other schools. Clubs therefore come and go.

Scarce opportunities to compete. Most scholastic players enjoy competition. Tournaments and matches are not only exciting, but they build team spirit and camaraderie. Competitions also promote a sense of community when players and parents from various schools meet each other.

Competitive opportunities are rare in the district. A small number of players participate in tournaments, most of which cost approximately $30. There have been a handful of matches between schools in the district. There is no competition on a district-wide level.

Recommendations

The committee recommends the following:

Centralization and improved instruction. We are not recommending the elimination of any existing clubs. Several of the problems we identified, however, are caused by the small size of most clubs. Multi-tiered instruction, allowing teaching at several levels of ability, is possible only in larger clubs, where lesson groups could approach the ideal of 10-25 students. Larger clubs not only permit economies of scale but create a more exciting environment for their members and more opportunities to play.

We recommend establishing three chess centers in the district, one in each geographical section, each of which would accept approximately 75 members.

Instruction can be standardized to the degree desired. Indian Trail has offered to make its curriculum available and to share its experience with instructional software.

Improved instruction is facilitated by longer club meetings than is typical in our existing clubs. The Indian Trail club meets twice a week for two hours, but members are free to attend once a week and to leave early. On a typical day, students play casual games until everyone has arrived.  They then break into beginner and advanced groups for interactive 45-minute lessons. After the lessons, they have another 45 minutes to play. The school’s computer lab is also open to students wishing to use Think Like a King software, instructional chess software designed to stimulate logical problem-solving skills.  The club has developed a point system that rewards progress working through the software. Each chess center, however, would be free to develop whatever program it believes best suits it members.

Parent-run programs. Quality can best be maintained when parents remain involved in their children’s clubs, monitoring club meetings and the quality of coaching. Many parents cannot attend club meetings because of work and family obligations. But successful clubs are usually able to find at least a handful of parents able to perform these roles. Volunteering can be encouraged when parents register their children.

Where parents are unable to make the necessary time commitment, it may be feasible to hire teachers to run after-school programs, as presently takes place in many of the district’s schools. PTO’s or PTA’s could reimburse the expense.

Open access. We believe strongly that clubs should be open to all students regardless of ability to pay. We have also begun discussions about reaching students whose primary language is not English.

Better funding. Although some volunteer parents make good coaches, others do not know the game. Most coaches need to be paid, which becomes the greatest expense at most clubs. Costs can be reduced by employing high school and middle school students when they are available, as Indian Trail has done. Although most professional coaches charge from $80-$115 per hour for group lessons, there are a number of other experienced and affordable coaches in the area. One purpose of the committee will be to identify and recommend coaches, and one of our members has begun to do so.

When possible, the primary source of funding for the centers should be the district’s PTO’s and PTA’s in combination with annual fees to members. The successful Wayne Thomas club charges an annual fee of $60, considerably less than what many parents at other schools presently pay for much shorter programs. Another potential source of funds is local businesses.

Increased networking and website. There has, to date, been little networking in the district, and contacts between clubs have been rare. (By comparison, there is an organized scholastic umbrella organization in Evanston.) The committee will serve as a source of networking and will share information on coaches, curricula, and software. Its members will also provide assistance to district clubs.We are also planning a website.

Opportunities to compete. Evanston runs four unrated tournaments per year, charging only $4 per person and normally attracting 150 or more players. We plan to run similar tournaments in the district.We will also encourage schools to compete in one-on-one matches.

Non-competitive track. We understand that many players are not interested in competition. Clubs will be encouraged to continue to welcome those players. The Indian Trail club has a system of multiple incentives and rewards which encourage not only good play but learning, teaching, and helpfulness to the club.

Security screening. Both paid and volunteer coaches will continue to be screened for security consistent with district procedures.

Next Steps

To implement a program by the fall, and to announce it this summer, much needs to be done in the next three months.

Distribution and comments. The program description will be distributed to PTO’s and PTA’s, school administrators, existing club directors and parents. Comments and opinions will be solicited over the next few weeks. PTO’s and PTA’s not presently supporting chess should be asked to consider doing so. Committee members will make themselves available to explain details of the proposal.

Site selection. If the reaction is positive and three sites considered desirable, sites will shortly be selected. Factors will include the availability of active volunteers, the strength of existing clubs, the possibility of financial support, and transportation (including existing bus routes). While the middle schools may seem logical locations, the committee recommends elementary schools instead. First, this should help reduce the burden of transportation, as attendance at the elementary level is expected to be considerably higher than at the middle school level. In addition, some parents may be reluctant to send young children into upper schools.

Budgeting and finance. A mechanism should be devised to allow pooling and responsible use of resources.

Conclusion

With broad support, we have an opportunity to build a premiere chess program in Highland Park.