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I teach underprivileged students but Chicago school bosses won’t let them play chess

OpinionI teach underprivileged students but Chicago school bosses won’t let them play chess

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I proudly serve as a math teacher and chess coach at Ella Flagg Young Elementary School within the Chicago Public Schools (CPS). 

It’s with a sense of urgency and a heavy heart that I shed light on a deeply troubling situation affecting the underprivileged students in my care. 

In January, despite grappling with my own health challenges and financial hardships, I took it upon myself to purchase plane tickets for 10 of my students. 

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These tickets were intended to provide them with the opportunity to participate in the prestigious 2024 National K-8 Chess Championship in Atlanta, scheduled for May 9-12. The journey was supposed to be a celebration of their hard work and dedication to the game of chess. 

A chess board

A Chicago after-school chess club helps keep students off the streets at a dangerous time of day. (Dave M. Benett/Getty Images)

However, the dreams of my students have been shattered by certain underhanded union members within CPS who have peddled lies and fabricated stories to undermine me and prevent my students from competing. 

Despite our efforts and the overwhelming support that we’ve received from generous donors and the United States Chess Federation, CPS has inexplicably refused to allow my students to compete.  

Over the years, some of my actions and positions haven’t toed the union line, and I’ve rankled a few people across the city. I hate to wonder, but I do, if this situation is a way to retaliate against me, using these remarkable students to do it

These students, many of whom come from low-income households and foster care, have shown exceptional talent and dedication to the game of chess. They’ve proven themselves time and time again, achieving remarkable success in tournaments both locally and internationally. 

Just recently, they represented our school in Canada, where they emerged victorious, bringing home 1st and 3rd place trophies and making history as the first “non-Canadians” to top a Canadian tournament. 

The decision to withhold this opportunity from them is not only unfair but also goes against the spirit of inclusivity and equity that we strive to uphold in our educational system. My students deserve a chance to showcase their talents and compete on a national stage, regardless of their socioeconomic background. 

While I hold no animosity toward the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) as an organization, I vehemently oppose individuals who exploit the union for their own self-serving agendas, particularly when they wield the plight of children as a bargaining chip in internal disputes. 

Children should never be pawns in adult conflicts or used to advance personal interests. 

There are myriad avenues to challenge authority and advocate for change without compromising the well-being and educational opportunities of our students. As educators, our foremost duty is to our students — to stand by them, nurture them, and provide unwavering support. It is through this lens that I have approached my role as a teacher throughout my career. 

In 2006, upon receiving the devastating news that one of my young students was murdered in the streets of Chicago, I was confronted with the harsh reality that children are most vulnerable to violence during the critical hours between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. Fueled by a deep sense of responsibility to protect my students, I took decisive action: I established an after-school chess club aimed at providing a safe haven for my students beyond school hours. 

From its inception, my mission transcended merely teaching chess as a game of strategy; it became a mission to save lives. 

Despite their challenges, my chess champions possess incredible discipline and untapped potential, harboring aspirations of becoming future leaders on the global stage. Unfortunately, their families lack the financial means to support their participation in tournaments and travel opportunities. Therefore, this national event has been funded by donors whose donations for such purposes were approved by the CPS Gifts, Grants and Donations Department. 

As an educator, I’ve always believed in championing the dreams and aspirations of my students. I’ve witnessed firsthand the transformative power of providing equal opportunities for all students, regardless of their circumstances. 

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That’s why I wrote letters to CPS leadership begging them to allow my students to compete, but they ignored my pleas. It’s not the students’ fault that there are conflicts among adults. Even my school principal is aware of this great opportunity and has supported the trip. 

Unfortunately, her boss, the network chief, has been misled by three unscrupulous Chicago Teachers Union members who’ve peddled lies and fabricated stories at the expense of the kids. It is shameful that kids are again being made to suffer. 

From its inception, my mission transcended merely teaching chess as a game of strategy; it became a mission to save lives. 

Through their participation in this championship in Atlanta, my students would have the potential to inspire others with their dedication and perseverance, leaving a lasting impact on our school community and beyond. 

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I implore you to stand with me in advocating for the rights of these underprivileged kids. 

Together, we can shine a spotlight on the incredible potential within every child and support these students in their efforts to compete at the 2024 National K-8 Chess Championship in Atlanta on May 9-12. 

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