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Proud Homecoming for Middle School Chess Champs

Wednesday, April 18, 2012 - 08:30 AM

Students at Intermediate School 318 Eugenio Maria de Hostos in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, returned to their school on Tuesday as conquering heroes, having accomplished the extraordinary act of winning the national chess championship for high school students -- a feat that showed they were out of their grades, but not out of their class.

As SchoolBook first reported on Tuesday, I.S. 318's chess team, made up mostly of eighth graders, became the first middle school team to win the United States Chess Federation’s national high school championship. And as Anne Barnard and Dylan Loeb McClain report in The New York Times on Wednesday:

The victory burnishes what is already a legend in the chess world. At I.S. 318, more than 60 percent of the students come from families with incomes below the federal poverty level. Yet each stairwell landing bristles with four-foot chess trophies, and the school celebrities are people like James A. Black Jr. A 13-year-old with twinkly eyes and curly eyelashes, James is not a football hero or a valedictorian, but a certified chess master who gently corrects his teachers on the fine points of strategy.

Watching over a particularly raucous game on Tuesday, James, wearing a black sweatsuit and a huge book bag, took notice of the moment when only kings and pawns were left. “Automatic draw,” he declared. “Insufficient mating material.”

It's a delightful, affirming story about how skill and intellect are rewarded in a city school -- and how an inspired administration and devoted teaching staff can create an atmosphere that nurtures learning and accomplishment.

One particularly poignant note to the big win: the chess program was encouraged by the school's longtime principal, Fortunato "Fred" Rubino, who died on April 2. The Times notes that John Galvin, an assistant principal, said the team might present the new trophy to Mr. Rubino's wife.

The city's public school system was the focus of political attention on Tuesday, as Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Chancellor Dennis M. Walcott announced the opening of 54 new schools in the city in September -- and the likely candidates to run for Mr. Bloomberg's seat in 2013 discussed his education policies.

As The New York Times reports on Wednesday (as do other news organizations), the mayor and Mr. Walcott went to Washington Irving High School in Manhattan, which is slated to be closed, to say the mayor would continue his policy of closing large schools and replacing them with small ones. Come fall, 24 charter schools and 30 traditional public schools will be opened, bringing the mayor closer to presiding over 1,800 schools by the time he leaves office.

Earlier in the day, some of the mayoral candidates participated in a panel at New York University, The Times says, "where a group critical of Mr. Bloomberg’s policies released a report showing that the 23 schools targeted for closing this year had higher proportions of special-education students, students who were over age for their grade and students who qualified for free or reduced-price lunches, as well as lower proportions of students proficient in math and language arts, than the city’s school system as a whole."

The mayor rebutted that criticism, The Times reports:

“The student bodies of these new schools mirror those of the schools they replace,” the mayor said, “with similar percentages of black and Latino students, English-language learners and students with disabilities.”

According to Education Department data, in 2011 the percentage of students with disabilities at new schools opened by the Bloomberg administration was 15.2, compared with 10.7 percent at schools citywide. The percentage of English-language learners at the new schools was roughly equivalent to the percentage citywide; the percentage of black and Latino students was significantly higher at the new schools.

SchoolBook reported in greater depth on the panel, noting that the three likely mayoral candidates who attended -- William C. Thompson Jr., Public Advocate Bill de Blasio and Manhattan Borough President Scott M. Stringer -- as well as Speaker Christine C. Quinn, who did not attend, support mayoral control of the schools, though some advocated a kinder, gentler version, with more parental oversight.

They also all believe that closing schools should be done as a last resort, though Mr. Thompson called for a moratorium on all closings. Also discussed was a proposal to put struggling schools into a special improvement group -- something that had been tried before, known as the chancellor's district, and which had been deemed unsuccessful.

Overall, as Anna M. Phillips reported in SchoolBook, the event with the mayoral candidates -- particularly when juxtaposed with the mayor's announcement -- "gave the clearest indication yet of what education policies they might support in a mayoral race, and just how much distance they would put between themselves and Mayor Bloomberg’s policies."

Since the city's education policies are expected to be a premiere issue in the race for mayor next year, it appears, then, that the campaign is already heating up.

And we missed this the other day in The Local news blog in Fort Greene-Clinton Hill: Nancy Bruni, a friend of SchoolBook, wrote her annual post advising local students of some summer opportunities available to them. Know of student opportunities in your neighborhood? Post them on you school's SchoolBook page, and create a resource there for the community.

Speaking of SchoolBook's school pages: Two Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism students who have been "embedded" in Public School 24 in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, took the initiative to talk to students and the principal about this week's standardized tests -- and then posted their reports on the school's page for the greater community to see. Check out Jackie Mader's interview with the principal, Christina Fuentes, and Rebecca Moss's touching interviews with students.

SchoolBook's school pages were created to be used as a community resource to post information that others might want to see, whether because they have a child at the school or because they are shopping for a home or a school that fits their child. Anyone can add notices, photos, reports, student work, questions, answers -- or full-out interviews, like those done by the Columbia students.

And speaking of questions: Some are pending on some school pages from concerned parents. For instance, Dan Chevreux asks: "what do you need to get or do to get into columbia grammar prep highschool?" Does anyone have an answer for him? If so, go to the school's page and post your answer.

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