Chess has all the right moves for Haskell

Students at Haskell Year-Round Academy play chessball for all the right reasons: It’s fun. There are snacks. It’s a time to get your homework done.

Chessball isn’t one game. It’s a combination of activities — dodge ball and chess — that happens after school on Thursdays at Haskell. Ryan Miller, a behavior interventionist at the school, said 30-35 students typically turn up and look forward to it all week. They start eagerly asking him on Mondays: “I’ll see you on Thursday?”

Ryan Miller teaches chess at Haskell Year-Round Academy.

Ryan Miller teaches chess at Haskell Year-Round Academy.

The students begin by playing dodge ball in the gym for about a half-hour, a time that Miller laughingly calls “organized chaos.” Then, they move to the cafeteria in single lines to play chess. Their matches are charted on a board called the Haskell Chess Ladder. Players lose their place and have to earn their spot back if they don’t follow the rules.

Miller is strict about the rules. “Everything has to be about behavior,” he says.

It’s the second year at Haskell for Miller, who works with the Rockford Public Schools under a contract with Youth Services Network. Choosing chessball as an after-school program was a compromise between Haskell Principal Loree Leathers, who favored dodge ball, and Miller, who wanted chess. They were both looking for a way to bridge the gap between the elementary basketball season and the soccer season, but chessball turned into a popular activity in its own right.

Miller believes chess is a great way to teach the value of discipline and thinking ahead. Students quickly see what happens on the chessboard when they don’t anticipate moves and when they don’t have a plan.

The students have been quick studies. Twelve players from Haskell competed at a chess tournament at RESA Middle School the last weekend in January. Of the 28 schools competing, Haskell placed second behind Washington Academy. Every Haskell player won at least one match; many of them won three or more matches. Three Haskell players won the special “Biggest Upset” medal, and the school ended up with its first chess champions. Alex Mendoza and J.T. Coleman tied for first place in the fifth grade division.

Miller, who served in the U.S. Army for nine years and did two tours in Iraq, studied criminal justice in college. But he always saw the focus on punishment as futile. He prefers to teach young people the right way on the front end.

Chessball proves his approach works.

Mary Kaull is communications coordinator for the Rockford Public Schools. Please like RPS 205 on Facebook and follow us on Twitter and Instagram.