Kids Prove They're No Pawns In 'Brooklyn Castle' What happens when you take a group of junior high kids from a school with a poverty level of more than 65 percent and teach them how to play chess? Katie Dellamaggiore's documentary, Brooklyn Castle, explores the amazing results.
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Kids Prove They're No Pawns In 'Brooklyn Castle'

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Kids Prove They're No Pawns In 'Brooklyn Castle'

Kids Prove They're No Pawns In 'Brooklyn Castle'

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And if you're just tuning in, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

There's a school in Brooklyn called Intermediate School 318, or IS 318. Now, like other schools in the area, it's a Title I school. It means more than two-thirds of the kids there live below the poverty level. But unlike those other schools, IS 318 has the highest-ranked junior high school chess team in the country. In fact, the team has won over 30 national chess titles.

About three years ago, documentary filmmaker Katie Dellamaggiore began to chronicle the team and its amazing students, and she turned it into a film called "Brooklyn Castle." And one of the kids we meet early on is 11-year-old Justice Williams. He's a boy known locally as the Lebron James of chess.

KATIE DELLAMAGGIORE: When we met him, he was already ranked maybe fifth or sixth in the country for his age group. And so he was heading into 318 as a sixth grader with the highest rating that any kid had ever had at the school. I don't know what exactly makes or doesn't make a prodigy, but I definitely know that Justice has an amazing talent and has the tools and the gift to play chess.

RAZ: We're talking about a school where 70 to 75 percent of kids live below the poverty rate. I mean, they are dealing with the biggest obstacles and roadblocks outside of school just getting through the day. And yet, these kids are so committed to this.

DELLAMAGGIORE: Yeah. I mean, I think that's just proof, you know? I mean, if given the opportunity, and if the resources are there, then kids excel, you know? And if you take those resources away, then the opportunity to excel goes away too.

RAZ: You went inside the homes of some of these kids.


RAZ: And what did you find?

DELLAMAGGIORE: When I met the kids, I knew that we would want to go into their homes and meet their families and kind of get to know them as people. I was so happy to be able to share that with the audience because I think a lot of people don't get to hear those kind of stories, you know, even if their parents are working two, three jobs a day, even.

I mean, Pobo's mom, at the time that we were shooting, she used to sleep for like three hours a day, because she would run a daycare out of her home until 5 o'clock in the evening. And then she would head to a night shift as like an aide at a nursing home and work the night shift overnight, and then come back and work at the daycare. And I was like, Pobo, when does your mom sleep?

RAZ: He shares in those household duties. I mean, he actually shares with the daycare center and cleans up and...




POBO: Kevin?


POBO: Pay attention.


POBO: OK, people.

KEVIN: Ow. Ow. Ow.


POBO: Yes, Mom.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Unintelligible).

POBO: I know. I'm trying to. I'm not a teacher.

DELLAMAGGIORE: He cleans up the daycare. When he would get home from school, she would kind of be heading off to her second job, and all the little kids would be going home to their families. And so he would vacuum and put away all the toys and, you know, do all the dishes. And then after he was done cleaning up the daycare, he would sit down and do his homework.

RAZ: You started filming right when the financial crisis hit and filmed in the midst of the worst part of the economic crisis over the last few years. At a certain point, there's questions over whether the school can afford to keep this program going.


JOHN GALVIN: I would go insane if we have what we think is the best team and someone else wins it because we're not there. And it would be a shame if because of some corrupt bankers, you know, ruining the economy that our kids couldn't go on the trips. It's not their fault that the economy tanked.

RAZ: And that, of course, is a clip from the film "Brooklyn Castle." You heard John Galvin. He is the assistant principal at 318. And, Katie, they really struggle to keep that program going.

DELLAMAGGIORE: Yeah. And that's not something we expected. John Galvin called me, actually, to tell me: Hey, Katie, we got hit with some really bad budget cuts, and I don't know if we're going to be able to afford to take the kids to all their tournaments this year. He said to me: Oh, maybe you don't want to make the film anymore. He was being very sweet.

But, you know, I explained to him that, you know, if this was just a competition film where all it was about was tournaments and then whether the kids won or lost, then surely, yeah, like, not going to the tournaments would be a big deal.

But ultimately, you know, it's a documentary. What happens happens. And this was a bigger story, one that I could never have expected, and one that we wanted to tell. And if they didn't go, then that would be the story.

RAZ: Katie, there's one more student I want to ask you about, Patrick Johnson. He's 11. He's in the seventh grade. Let's just hear a clip of him for a moment.


PATRICK JOHNSON: On the chess scale in the chess room, I'm probably, like, almost the last place. I don't think it's that good. But, hey, at least, I'm not last.

RAZ: We later learn that Patrick's been diagnosed with ADHD. But as we just heard, I mean, unlike the other kids you focus on, he is not a top-ranked chess player. Why did you decide to tell a story to make him one of the main characters in this film?

DELLAMAGGIORE: It wouldn't be a whole picture of the team if we just kind of skimmed off the top and took just the top kids and didn't include the kids who weren't going to become master. You know, John Galvin and Elizabeth Vicary always said that part of what they think makes the team really special is that they don't just take the top kids to the tournaments, that they really are an inclusive team. And so, you know, you don't have to be any good to play. You can just show up. And as long as you keep showing up, that's enough for them.

RAZ: It's such an inspiring story. And it's so amazing that you were able to tell it with this film. And people should go see it if they haven't seen it. The film is called "Brooklyn Castle." Katie Dellamaggiore is the director of that film. She joined us from our bureau in New York. Katie, thank you so much.

DELLAMAGGIORE: Thank you so much.

RAZ: Congratulations.

DELLAMAGGIORE: I appreciate it.

RAZ: And you're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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