'Brooklyn Castle' Showcases Chess Champs in Title I School

Documentary filmmaker Katie Dellamaggiore says her new film, “Brooklyn Castle,” carries a message that public school teachers – overburdened by budget cuts and swelling class sizes – need to hear right now. It tells the real success story of Brooklyn’s Intermediate School 318, a Title I school in Brooklyn, in which 70 percent of students live at or below the federal poverty line. Many of the students have single parents, or they face language barriers and other struggles, but everyone at I.S. 318 has united behind an unlikely passion: chess.

A still from "Brooklyn Castle"

I.S. 318 has won 26 national chess titles — more than any other junior high in the country.  In April 2012 they became first junior high school team to become High School National Champions.  They were honored in a ceremony with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and their triumph was featured on the front page of The New York Times. The chess club kids are treated like rock stars by their peers, and shiny chess tournament trophies line the halls of the school.

Dellamaggiore said some schools idolize football players or track stars, but it’s a different culture at 318.

“[318 students] celebrate something different,” Dellamaggiore said. “They say, ‘Hey, our school is really good at something, and we’re good at something that’s really smart.’”

Dellamaggiore said she didn’t begin the project with the intention of commenting on education policy, but now she said she feels very strongly that the nation needs to invest further in public education.

“You can’t cut programs and resources and then ask, ‘why aren’t you guys doing any good,’” she said. “I also find it frustrating to hear the tired story about lazy overpaid teachers who are just waiting to retire or collect their pensions. I didn’t experience that at all with the teachers at I.S. 318.”

The extraordindary success of the team can be credited in large part to the brilliant chess teacher /coach Elizabeth Vicary and chess coordinator John Galvin, as well as the support and encouragement from their parents.

“I started playing chess when I was in junior high school, just like the kids in the film,” says Vicary. “And I’ve played with enthusiasm all my life.  I started coaching at I.S. 318 one day a week, but that quickly grew to one and a half school days and a tournament field trip every Saturday.” When Vicary arrived at the school, the chess team was only 10 members strong and had never competed in a tournament. By the end of her first year, they’d won a national title.

“Brooklyn Castle” portrays the enormous impact the chess club has had on the students’ lives. One student, Pobo, says without chess club, he “wouldn’t be here talking to you now.”  He used to act out in school, which led to multiple suspensions. Now, Pobo is a chess club team leader, and the film follows his campaign for class president (you’ll have to watch to see if he wins!).

Filmmaker Katie Dellamaggiore

Just a few months after Dellamaggiore started filming, I.S. 318 suffered a million dollar budget cut. Immediately, all extracurricular activities were on the chopping block. Suddenly, the chess team wasn’t sure they’d be able to attend all three tournaments they needed to go to that year.

“I think that when lawmakers are faced with cutting a budget, they know they can’t cut core programs like reading and math or science,” Dellamaggiore said. “So the first things to go are the things they see as ‘extra.’ But what one person might consider ‘extra’ might be a kid’s reason for showing up for school.”

At other schools, students don’t necessarily notice the effects of budget cuts right away. They might have their class sizes increase by one or two students, or the cuts might be absorbed another way. But at 318, the chess team immediately had to go into fundraising overdrive if they wanted to attend the tournaments.

The school rallied together to fight the cuts. While other middle school president candidates run on platforms that include longer lunch breaks, more spirit assemblies and better snack choices, Pobo ran his campaign with one goal: help restore the million dollars cut from the school.

The children wrote letters to their representatives, held rallies at lunch breaks and PTA meetings, and made every effort to speak up on behalf of their school. After a successful email campaign, $100,000 of I.S. 318’s budget was reinstated, which saved the chess club and the marching band.  Still, Dellamaggiore said funding for critical programs that benefit students from lower income background is an ongoing struggle.

Dellamaggiore said she hopes people walk away from “Brooklyn Castle” feeling  inspired. Teachers can return to their schools and start an after school club of their own, parents can be more involved in their children’s education, and students can go back to school feeling like they’re capable of much more than they thought – and learn that every problem has a solution if you are willing to work hard enough to find it.

“Brooklyn Castle” is in select theaters now, and teachers can see it for free in some cities. For more information, go to www.brooklyncastle.com.