In the ranks of junior high school popularity, members of the chess team are usually closer to the bottom than to the top. But Brooklyn’s I.S. 318 is no ordinary school. About 70 percent of its students’ families are living at or below the poverty level, but many of those same students are some of the best young chess players in the country. It probably helps that they have a thriving chess program and a dedicated chess teacher (Ms. Vicary) whose class students can take up to seven times a week, but the support of the parents is also critical, both to help encourage their kids to do well, but also to ensure that chess doesn’t get in the way of their other work.
This documentary is a kind of “a year in the life” look at the school and a number of its students and faculty members, and while it primarily focuses on activity during the school year, it actually spans parts of consecutive years than focusing entirely on one. This is an interesting approach, because it means that not only do we get to see the existing 6th and 7th grade students return for the next year, but we also see a new round of 6th graders coming in, and 8th graders promoted to high school. Rochelle is one such graduating student, and not only does she have the pressure of being one of the highest-rated chess junior players in the nation and a good chance of becoming the first ever female African-American to achieve a “master” rating, but she also has to worry about which high school she will get into. It seems that New York high schools have an admissions process similar to colleges, often including entrance exams where a single bad day could have a significant effect on opportunities that may be available to them in the future.
On the other end of the spectrum, Justus is an incoming sixth grader who is something of a phenomenon and has already reached the “expert” level by age ten. For him, one of the benefits the chess training can provide is a boost of maturity, since although he’s a great player, his confidence is easily shaken and he needs to learn how to brush off a loss and come back strong. And for some students like Patrick who suffer from ADHD and find it hard to focus for extensive periods of time, the discipline of chess might just help trick their minds into learning new behaviors and gaining increased concentration.
While the film’s primary focus is on the people, it also gives us occasional glimpses into the economics of education, and we see the dangers of ever-decreasing budgets that threaten to weaken or eliminate academic programs like chess and music, as well as non-academic extracurriculars like sports. This aspect of the film is remarkable not because of the dangers they face, but because of the reactions of the students and the community. As the poverty-stricken parents are asked to bear an increasingly-larger share of the costs of these programs, it’s not hard to see why the American educational system is falling behind programs in countries all over the world. I certainly think that they’d disagree with the assertion made in Waiting for Superman that larger budgets don’t result in better educational opportunities.
While the film is mostly enjoyable, it does seem to become a bit repetitive near the end, which makes it feel a bit too long. It also occasionally floods you with statistics that are hard to assimilate quickly enough, and it is sometimes confusing as to whether the data given represent final results or in-progress information. But the main points of the film come across clearly, and you’re not likely to walk away disappointed.