Everyone in 12-year-old Jacob Barayez’s family plays chess. His great grandfather taught his father, his grandfather taught him and now he hopes to pass this skill onto his grandchildren someday.
“It’s a family tradition,” he said.
It’s what motivates Jacob to trek each day from Forest Hills, Queens, to school at I.S. 318 in Williamsburg, whose junior chess team is the best in the country.
Not long ago, however, all that success seemed easy prey for tough economic times. Shortly after the team won the National High School Championships this past spring – an unprecedented feat for a middle school – the city eliminated the program’s budget. Luckily, the award winning, soon-to-be-theatrically released documentary, Brooklyn Castle, could help make ends meet for a major source of neighborhood pride.
Brooklyn Castle, to open in select cities on October 19th, follows five members of the school’s chess team, all of whom are considered stars by their classmates and teachers. In it, the team serves as a paragon of successful afterschool programming and shows how important they are in empowering their students in ways that a basic curriculum cannot, especially at a Title 1 school like I.S. 318, which has a poverty level of 60 percent.
Brooklyn Castle also depicts the challenges these students face both in their personal lives and on the chessboard, and “is as much about the sting of their losses as it is about the anticipation of their victories,” according to a plot summary on the film’s website. The great irony, the film suggests, is that the team’s greatest challenge, even during filming in 2008, is not so much their competitors but the recessionary budget cuts to afterschool programs.
“That seemed really unfair to us…it wasn’t their fault the economy tanked and yet this program was in danger of going away,” said director Katie Dellamaggiore in a video online. “It hasn’t gotten any better. The economy hasn’t gotten any better, and the situation at 318 hasn’t gotten much better.”
This was no less true this past spring, when the city made one of its largest cuts to the afterschool curriculum, slashing the number of Out-of-School-Time programs in Brooklyn– the same ones that help fund I.S. 318’s own afterschool programs – by half.
As a result of these cuts, numerous city schools have had to resort to private fundraising to keep their programs in tact. And I.S.318 certainly hasn’t been immune.
A wave of protests over the summer led to the restoration of $150 million to child-care and afterschool programs, citywide. According to IS 318 Assistant Principal and Chess Coordinator John Galvin, however, despite his school’s regaining 75% of what it lost, none of that money would be going back to the chess team.
“Every year, we’re fighting to fund the money to continue the program. It’s frustrating because you work really hard to be great at something. And that costs a nice chunk of money,” Galvin said. “We have the best team in America, but we can’t [afford to travel] to the competition. There’s something wrong with that. It shows that it’s really about the money. It’s not about having the best chess players.”
Fortunes turned this past spring, when national attention for Brooklyn Castle at film festivals – like South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, where it won the prestigious Audience Award – became a financial force for the chess team, helping attract donations from unexpected sources.
Galvin said the film has helped raise an astounding $30,000 in private donations for the chess program. That’s half of the $60,000 he estimates they will need for the coming competition year to pay the travel and competition expenses for all 50 players.
“People who have seen the film have really been generous. There was a screening of it at the Brooklyn Film Festival. ExxonMobil’s Community Affairs Liaison Kevin Thompson said he was so moved by it, he arranged for his company to rent Nitehawk Cinema for the night for a private screening,” said Galvin. “We raised $18,000 that night.”
Another donor from Martha’s Vineyard saw the film and recently wrote the team a $5,000 check.
“This is what we hope continues to happen,” he said.
In recent weeks, Chess NYC, a non-profit educational organization, has stepped up to sponsor the team by providing additional afterschool coaches and helping pay for national competitions. Galvin said the organization has already promised to cover the students’ entry fees for tournaments this year.
Dellamaggiore said in the same online video that this type of public response was “proof for us as filmmakers that this story had traction and that people were responding.”
But despite the support the film has garnered for I.S. 318’s chess program, Galvin is still frustrated that budget cuts continue to mire schools that show great promise. For the chess team, this is especially difficult, as it has been heralded for years as a shining example for District 14. The announced budget cut came just days after Mayor Bloomberg celebrated the national champs in a ceremony at Gracie Mansion.
“Every time the evaluators have come to us, they’ve always loved our program,” he said. “They use us as a model, so we thought we had demonstrated the great things that afterschool programs can do.”
So far, the I.S. 318 chess team has won 31 national championships – the most prestigious being the National High School Championships in Minneapolis this past spring, where it defeated New York’s Stuyvesant High School and Edward R. Murrow High School.
“It’s never happened that a junior high school has won,” Galvin added proudly. And he certainly plans on winning many more, with hopes of competing in four national tournaments this school year.
Barayez is one of his most promising players, and has already won plenty of competitions as a 7th grader.
“I don’t get nervous. I have a lot of training during the week. I know what my plan is and I know how to succeed in the game,” he said. “I think two moves ahead.”
He didn’t compete in the high school championships last year, but he’s prepared to continue his family’s chess legacy while at I.S. 318.
“It’s pathetic that when a school has success, [the city’s] response is to pull the rug out rather than allow them to flourish,” said Debbie Feiner, a member of Williamsburg and Greenpoint Parents for our Public Schools and a parent at P.S. 34. “It’s sickening. That school is serving this community in the best way possible.”
Lai-Wan Wong, the director of youth and education at St. Nicks Alliance in Brooklyn believes that Brooklyn Castle will change the conversation surrounding afterschool programs on the national front.
“Kids need opportunities, and if you give them the support, they can do these amazing things with their lives. I think the movie shows that brilliantly.”
Nevertheless, Wong said that the community should continue to hold the city accountable for funding afterschool programs.
“There aren’t enough ‘sales’ or ‘walks’ that can fund for the stability of these programs. Schools shouldn’t have to fundraise. They should be spending their time supporting their kids.”
Galvin said he’s been trying to keep budget out of the conversation with his students.
“I don’t want them to become pawns in some political battle. They should be focused on getting better at chess and not worrying about whether they can pay for the championships,” he said. “That’s my job. And I’m going to make it work.”
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