Kids on the South Side, many of whom cope with a variety of challenges in their neighborhood, are finding success and fulfillment through an unlikely pursuit. They're learning critical thinking skills and the importance of not giving up.
Thanks to math teacher Joe Ocol, students at the Earle STEM Academy in Englewood are discovering potential they didn't know they had.
Ocol is credited with creating the chess program that has put these kids on a trajectory for achievement. The club began in 2014. But when more than $17,000 in school budget cuts last year led the school to announce plans to end the program, Ocol began volunteering his time and money to keep the team in the game.
And his sacrifices have paid off. The West Englewood team has earned national recognition, taking home first-place trophies in tournaments across the country. Parents report that they've seen positive changes in their kids-- like better grades-- since they got involved in chess. Other educators notice that these students are more confident and are critical thinkers.
But for Ocol, the chess club is about more than just employing strategy and winning matches. Before joining the faculty at Earle, he taught at Marshall High School, where one of his students was killed, another victim of Chicago's rampant street violence. Ocol started a chess program there after the tragedy to give students an alternative to hanging out on the streets.
For many kids in Chicago's crime-ridden neighborhoods, the most dangerous time to be out and about is after school, between 3 and 6 pm. Ocol provides chess-coaching after class, between 4 and 6 pm. For him, investing in these kids is about saving lives.
But additional funds are needed to help the club continue to accomplish its goals. Ocol has been paying for snacks after school and meals when the kids compete. Money is also needed to cover travel expenses to tournaments.
As we begin this season of giving thanks and giving those around us reasons to be thankful, please consider how you can support the Earle chess club. A GoFundMe page has been set up to help meet funding goals.
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