POV’s 26th Season continues with the national broadcast premiere of Katie Dellamaggiore’s Brooklyn Castle on Monday, October 7, at 10 PM on PBS (Check local listings). The film is part of the new PBS Indies Showcase, a four-week series of independent documentaries airing on Monday nights from September 30 – October 21. 56 UP (POV 2013), also included in the PBS Indies Showcase, will air on Monday, October 14, at 10 PM.
Brooklyn Castle is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make It Happen, a national public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to identify and implement solutions to the dropout crisis and help parents and teachers keep students on the path to a successful future. The film profiles a public-school powerhouse in junior high chess competitions that has won more than 30 national championships, the most of any school in the country. Its 85-member squad boasts so many strong players that the late Albert Einstein, a dedicated chess maven, would rank fourth if he were on the team. Most astoundingly, I.S. 318 is a Brooklyn school that serves mostly minority students from families living below the poverty line. Brooklyn Castle is the exhilarating story of five of the school’s aspiring young players and how chess became the school’s unlikely inspiration for academic success.
Brooklyn’s I.S. 318 junior high school fits one inner-city stereotype—a majority of its students come from below-the-poverty-line families. All other expectations, as shown in the new documentary Brooklyn Castle, should be checked at the door. Beginning in 2000, under the tutelage of chess teacher and coach Elizabeth Spiegel and assistant principal and chess coordinator John Galvin, I.S. 318 expanded its small chess program and began competing in national tournaments. For those keeping score, the results have been stunning: more than 30 national chess titles, including, in 2012, the U.S. High School National Championship, a first for a junior high.
Brooklyn Castle goes behind the scenes to reveal the inspirational effect of the chess team’s success on the entire student body. In achieving the improbable, the “chess nuts” of I.S. 318 are expanding the possibilities for themselves and for disadvantaged students like them.
Brooklyn Castle is dramatic illustration that extracurricular activities, as I.S. 318 principal Fred Rubino likes to points out, are not really “extra” at all, because they teach “the whole child.” In following the daily lives and competitive chess fortunes of five of the team’s members as they tour the country competing for team and individual points, the film captures the students’ sheer thrill of achievement. After all, if they can master the world’s most difficult game, what can’t they do? Brooklyn Castle is also a dramatic account of five young lives in-the-making, in which triumph at the chessboard comes with hard work and personal tribulation.
Alexis Paredes, 12, 7th grade – one of the highest rated members (second-ranked to Rochelle), of the I.S. 318 team and his approach to chess is like his play—meditative and thoughtful. A thoughtful player, he sees chess, and entrance to one to New York City’s top-tier public high schools, as the first steps on the road to a promising career that will allow him to support his immigrant parents. he sees chess as a way to an education and a lucrative career that will allow him to support his immigrant family. Though he appears calm, the shy youngster suffers from the strain of competition and the need to succeed. Getting into a great school is based on the result of a single exam, and Alexis has difficulty performing under pressure.
Justus Williams, 11, 6th grade, is a rising star in the scholastic chess world. When he joins the team, he is already a master who has been selected to sit on the United States Chess Federation’s esteemed All-American team—one of the highest national honors attainable by a young chess player. Justus struggles with the unwanted attention his immense talent commands, as well as the sky-high expectations it raises. He is plagued by a tendency to freeze, stymied by the expectations created by his success.
Pobo Efekoro, 12, 7th grade is the big, boisterous, warm-hearted leader of the team and a charismatic student and natural politician. When the school’s budget for afterschool programs is cut, dubbing himself “Pobama,” he runs for school president with the goal of mobilizing a student protest to get the cuts restored. He spends so much energy on these activities and looking after the emotional needs of teammates that his own playing begins to suffer. None the less, Pobo emerges as a big brother figure and leader to the other chess team members.
Rochelle Ballantyne, 13, 8th grade – a girl in a world dominated by boys and who has broken the gender line of what had been an all-boys chess club, has the potential to become the first African-American female master in the history of chess. But she excels in many fields, and she struggles to commit fully to chess. Her goal requires that she strike a careful—and difficult—balance between her demanding academic routine and grueling chess practice schedule.
Patrick Johnston, 11, 7th grade – is a sensitive and (initially) low-rated beginner whose goals are modest compared to those of his teammates, yet they loom large for him. Afflicted with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Patrick has taken to chess to develop concentration and patience. During the year of filming, his immediate objective is to raise his ranking to a middle level. His struggle, in which he displays heartbreaking, nail-biting determination and is cheered on by the indefatigable Pobo, becomes as epic as that of any of the other players. By the end of the film, he becomes a winner, showing newfound confidence in his strengths–both in life and in chess.
Because Patrick’s fight to raise his ranking to middle level involves a sense of personal achievement, it gets at the heart of what chess has done for I.S. 318. For these kids, chess is more than a game, and winning is more than a matter of trophies. Brooklyn Castle is a clear-eyed look at a school program that has made a huge difference to students. It is equally a celebration of youth’s determination to dream, if given the chance.
Other important figures in the film include Elizabeth Vicary, coach/chess teacher. A chess champion and the guiding force behind I.S. 318’s blue-ribbon chess team, Vicary has helped hundreds of kids go from not knowing how to move the pieces on the board to winning national titles. When she arrived at the school, the chess team was only 10 members strong and had never competed in a tournament. By the end of her first year, it had won a national title.
Now in his 17th year at I.S. 318, John Galvin, assistant principal/coach. Alvin is a veteran educator and dedicated chess coach. He’s tough—but supportive—and his high expectations have resulted in a culture of success that pervades I.S. 318. When the financial crisis begins to impact the school, he mounts a community-wide campaign to push against funding cuts and employs budgetary wizardry to save the programs that make I.S. 318 great.
In Principal Fred Rubino’s 25 years at I.S. 318, he’s witnessed how high-quality afterschool programs can turn a school around, and it’s made him a fierce defender of the school’s innovative activities. Deeply committed to his students, he faces budget cuts with dogged determination to keep I.S. 318’s programs intact, and ensure every student has access to the resources they need to excel. Rubino, who was made Superintendent of Brooklyn’s District 14 in 2012, passed away suddenly in April that same year. he is greatly missed.
Director/Producer Katie Dellamaggiore was motivated to make the documentary after reading a 2007 article in The New York Times. “The idea for Brooklyn Castle came from a 2007 article I read in The New York Times about a talented chess player at Edward R. Murrow High School in Midwood, Brooklyn, a neighborhood near the one where I grew up. At the time, Murrow had the best high school chess team in the nation, and the team was featured in The Kings of New York, a then-new book by sportswriter Michael Weinreb. I had always been interested in making a film about Brooklyn, but I wanted to tell a story that people didn’t expect. There are so many negative, clichéd stereotypes about Brooklyn, and I was proud that the best young chess players in the country were right here in my hometown.”
She continues, “I met with Weinreb, and he told me a lot of fascinating things about scholastic chess and his experiences writing the book. But because the kids from Murrow were already getting a lot of attention, he recommended I check out I.S. 318, the intermediate school that was feeding many top chess players into Murrow. I.S. 318 was featured in one chapter of his book and he wished he had spent more time with the chess team there.”
She made an appointment to meet I.S. 318 assistant principal and chess coordinator John Galvin and chess teacher and chess coach Elizabeth Vicary. “As soon as I walked into the school, which is just minutes from where I live in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, I knew that it was special. Chess trophies and banners lined the hallways, and up in the third floor chess room, kids were engaged and happy learning chess. Vicary is such a compelling teacher that it was riveting to watch her teach. I’m not a chess player, but I’ve always been fascinated by this complex and beautiful ancient game. I was hooked. ”
I talked with the kids one-on-one to learn about their goals and struggles both on and off the chessboard. Alexis talked about wanting to get into a top high school; Patrick saw chess as a way to improve his concentration; and Rochelle wanted to be the first African-American female master. Pobo had not yet decided to run for school president at the time, but he had such a boisterous personality and big, warm heart that I knew we had to follow him. And then Vicary told me about Justus, a rising star in the chess world who would be starting at 318 in the fall. It made sense to track his journey as the team’s new top-rated player just as Rochelle was graduating and heading to high school.
She was equally fascinated by the kids in the chess club: “I talked with the kids one-on-one to learn about their goals and struggle both on and off the chessboard. Alexis talked about wanting to get into a top high school; Patrick saw chess as a way to improve his concentration; and Rochelle wanted to be the first African-American female master. Pobo had not yet decided to run for school president at the time, but he had such a boisterous personality and big, warm heart that I knew we had to follow him. And then Vicary told me about Justus, a rising star in the chess world who would be starting at 318 in the fall. It made sense to track his journey as the team’s new top-rated player just as Rochelle was graduating and heading to high school.”
When lawmakers and school leaders are faced with drastic budget cuts, they know they can’t cut core programs like reading, math and science, and they have to pay teachers, so the first things to go are programs that are seen as “extras.” But for the kids like Patrick and the others, what one person might consider an extra, like chess, might be a kid’s reason for showing up for school. The chess program has infused all of I.S. 318 with a culture of success and has directly impacted the lives of thousands of students. Looking at an afterschool program as a line item in a budget, there’s no way to understand how much it is worth. she hope that after seeing Brooklyn Castle, people will begin to understand the value of afterschool programs and how chess teaches students valuable critical-thinking skills and helps to build self-confidence, self-awareness, character, curiosity and resilience—traits that ultimately contribute to success in adulthood.
Although she didn’t plan to make a film about the education system, she now strongly feels that if we expect public education to work, we have to invest in it. “We can’t cut programs and resources and then ask why students aren’t succeeding. We’re always hearing that the system is broken and we have to come up with an entirely new model. But why do we have to start from scratch? Why can’t we identify programs that are working and use them as examples? I also find it frustrating to hear the tired story about lazy, overpaid teachers who are just waiting to retire and collect their pensions. I didn’t observe that at all with the teachers at I.S. 318. It’s nice to be able to show teachers at a below-the-poverty-line school who really, truly care.”
“I hope that audiences who see this film are inspired to do what they can in their community: Teachers may want to create new afterschool programs; parents might go to more PTA meetings and get more involved; or kids may imagine that their biggest dreams are possible. Even if you’re not a teacher, a parent or a student, I think Brooklyn Castle will make you feel good. It will make you feel proud that stories like the story of the I.S. 318 chess team can be found in public schools all over the United States.”
Katie Dellamaggiore is a documentary producer and director whose work has appeared on MTV, A&E, HBO/Cinemax and VH1. She has held various production and outreach roles on award-winning documentaries, including 39 Pounds of Love, To Die in Jerusalem, 51 Birch Street and American Teen. Dellamaggiore co-produced After the Storm, a nonprofit theater and film project aimed at inspiring young people in post-Katrina New Orleans, and for A&E Classroom directed, produced and shot UR Life Online, which explored sexual solicitation and cyber bullying and received an Emmy nomination for single-camera editing. In 2010, she and her husband, Nelson Dellamaggiore, co-founded television and film production company Rescued Media. Brooklyn Castle is her feature directorial debut.
Brooklyn Castle is a production of Rescued Media NYC Inc. in association with Indelible Marks, Chicken and Egg Pictures, LeCASTLE Film Works and American Documentary | POV. Executive Producer for American Documentary | POV is Simon Kilmurry. For a complete lineup of POV’s Season 26 films, visit: www.pbs.org/pov.