CHESS PROVES A POWERFUL
MOTIVATOR AT PALOLO ELEMENTARY
CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARBULLETIN.COM
Albert Lee, 7, watches his opponent, Ski Betiru, 8, make his move during a lunch-hour chess match at Palolo Elementary School. Lee won an individual award at the 2006 Hawaii State Scholastic Chess Championships.
Board of cogitation
A school club inspires kids to keep up with their studies
They don't fit the stereotype of the "nerdy" chess player, these playful children from Palolo's public housing, with worn rubber slippers on their restless feet.
How to participate
What: Chess clinic for students from Palolo Elementary, Jarrett Middle and Kaimuki high schools
Who: Open to players at all levels
When: Saturday, 8 a.m. to noon
Where: Palolo Elementary School cafeteria
» For results of the 2006 Hawaii State Scholastic Championships, visit www.hawaiichess.org.
Even their schoolteachers are new to the game. Four donated chess sets sat on the shelf for a year at Palolo Elementary School because no one knew how to play.
But when Palolo's fledgling chess team entered its first State Scholastic Championship last month, it beat four private schools, including Iolani. Palolo finished fifth out of 13 teams and was the top-ranked public school in the kindergarten-to-sixth-grade division.
And one of their better players, a second-grader, had overslept and missed the competition.
"When you go to the chess tournaments, usually you only find a certain kind of people," said Henrietta Clemons, who runs the club despite being a novice herself. "We have such a different cultural background at Palolo. I've got Micronesians, Vietnamese, Laotians, Samoans, Tongans, and they're all into this game."
Forty-seven kids are in the chess club, up from just a handful when it began less than three years ago. Boys and girls give up their lunch recess to crowd into Clemons' classroom, clustering around checkered boards as their volunteer coach, John Imperial, strains to be heard over the noise of kids outside. At Palolo, 98 percent of students come from low-income families, and few have seen a chess board outside of school.
"I'm surprised how much this game has taken off in this school," said Clemons, coordinator of the Volunteers in Service to America program on campus. "Every day, I have students ask me, 'Can I join the chess club?' The stipulation is the kids have to do their homework. If they miss three times, they're out of the club."
That has proved to be a powerful incentive. Donovan Luafalealo, a hulking 8-year-old whose baggy shorts nearly reach his ankles, used to ignore homework assignments and cause trouble in class. That was before his teacher, Sandy Kanemura, referred him to the chess club. He took to the game right away.
"Now that I came into chess, I'm doing my homework because I want to play chess and they won't let you in if you don't," he said. "I like chess because it's a strategy game and you can win stuff, like trophies."
CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARBULLETIN.COM
Palolo Elementary School students converge to play chess during their lunch recess in Henrietta Clemons' classroom. Pictured seated across from their opponents are Chad Asugar, 8, left, Matthew Refalopei, 10, Swarrengen Seooet, 10, Dennis Turnage, 10, and James Rafanan, 10, with Vinh Le, 10, standing.
Kanemura's eyes watered as she talked about the change in her student, crediting Clemons and Imperial. "It's been such a positive motivator for him," she said. "I wanted him to see a different lifestyle, a different way of interacting with people, in a refined manner, following directions. I really feel like chess is going to open up a whole new world for him."
Principal Ruth Silberstein thinks chess could help lift academic performance at the school, which has been sanctioned for low test scores. Chess teaches kids to focus, control their impulses, think several moves ahead, persevere and be good sports. The kids even learn basic algebra, recording the X and Y coordinates of their moves on paper, but it doesn't feel like work to them.
"Chess is fun," said Vinh Le, a soft-spoken 10-year-old. "You use your mind. I feel like it's a really good thing to do."
Imperial, a business consultant, decided to help Palolo's team after he saw them struggle at an earlier tournament. His son Xavier, a Maryknoll student, just won the fourth-grade individual championship. Other volunteers who have helped build Palolo's chess club are Rotarian Andrew Glatzel, Debbie Bocken and Chaminade University student Chelsea Silva.
Palolo did not expect to make a big showing at the state tournament. The students were thrilled when one of their teammates, 7-year-old Albert Lee, got an individual trophy for placing sixth in the Primary Division.
"Our goal was for every player to last at least 20 moves against each of their opponents," Imperial said. "Not only was this goal met, but one of the Palolo students beat the top-ranked player in his age group, many of them played 40-plus move games and some even reached up to 75, 80 moves."
A dozen fifth-graders will move from Palolo to Jarrett Middle School next year, and Jarrett has decided to provide chess next year because of the high interest. To help build the momentum, a chess clinic will be held Saturday at Palolo Elementary for beginning and advanced players from Palolo, Jarrett and Kaimuki High.
Clemons is hoping to welcome a special guest to the event: Colin Rayner, an elderly volunteer at Helping Hands Hawaii who donated the original chess sets to Palolo.
"I would like to have him see the seed that he planted in this school," she said, "and how much it has grown."