Saturday, September 20, 2008

Check mate! Chess thrives in Idaho grade schools

The elementary school at the edge of this rural town has a playground that boasts little more than a swing set. That's no problem — the hot new game is inside.

Chess, once used as a way to teach war strategy, is now being taught to second- and third-graders across Idaho once a week as part of a plan to make students better at subjects like math and reading.

"At first I thought, 'You've got to be kidding,'" said Penny Lattimer, a Council Elementary School teacher. "We already have so much stuff to teach."

Lattimer didn't know how to play chess until last year, when she and a dozen other Idaho teachers were trained as part of a pilot program to bring chess into public schools.

The state Department of Education has now invested $120,000 into the project, which was tested in 100 schools last year and expanded this fall to 100 more.

Jerry Nash, scholastic director for the United States Chess Federation, said he has worked with public schools nationwide to develop chess programs, but Idaho is the first state to encourage public schools statewide to use the game as part of their curricula in second- and third-grades.

While the federation estimates 500,000 students nationwide in grades K-12 are being taught some aspect of the game through chess clubs, programs, or in the classroom, chess proponents such as Nash consider Idaho a trailblazer for introducing the game on such a large scale.

"What we're hoping is that it will be a great introduction," Nash said. "The more teachers that we have involved, obviously the greater impact we'll make."

Earlier this week at Council Elementary, third-grader Kristen Kruger, 8, played chess across the room from her brother, Tyler, a 9-year-old in the fourth grade. Kruger said the two often challenge one another.

"He's beat me like a hundred times," she said. "I won him once."

Lattimer points out one of her students who she said struggles with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. "In the classroom, he cannot sit still," Lattimer said, "but he sits still for this."

Council Elementary embraced the chance to become one of the first to try the program last year, when the state paid for it. This year, those same schools had to pay $340 per classroom to keep it.

The cash-strapped elementary school has scaled back on teaching aides just to make ends meet, but Principal Bonnie Thompson said it was able to find enough money to keep the program going.

Council doesn't stray far from tradition, she said, but the game has brought a new dimension to life in this former timber town where its 800 people struggle to survive the economic downturns of the logging industry.

"They just don't have that much exposure to culture here," Thompson said. "They do what they've always done in Council. They play football and they go to the park. I've never heard them talk about chess."

The program being taught in Idaho public schools — called First Move — was developed by the America's Foundation for Chess, and was first tested in Seattle-area schools, said foundation Vice President Wendi Fischer.

First Move is now taught in 26 states, with Idaho public schools Superintendent Tom Luna the first to adopt it on such a large scale.

The game can help students develop critical thinking skills that make them better at math, reading and writing, Fischer said. For example, students who become familiar with the vertical and horizontal lines of a chess board and how they are numbered also learn the fundamentals of how maps, graphs and how X and Y coordinates work.

"That's pre-algebra," Fischer said.

Idaho was second only to Utah in the lowest school district spending per student in 2006, according to a 2008 U.S. Census Bureau report based on the most recent data available. The report says Idaho spent about $6,440 per pupil in 2006, compared to the national average of $9,138 per student.

Luna acknowledges there's little hard evidence students actually benefit from playing chess, and it could take a few years before Idaho can gauge whether students who learn chess are more successful in academics.

"But if we're going to encourage innovation and new ideas," Luna said, "we have to give those new ideas time to produce results."

Lattimer said she has noticed students seem more polite after learning a game that requires opponents to shake hands before and after they play.

"You'll see it on the playground," Lattimer said. "The kids are just more kind."