Because ESL teachers work with individuals or very small groups of students, many don’t have a classroom. When Mark Hegenauer came to Columbus Elementary School in New Rochelle in 1998, “I was set up in a closet.” While space may not be a problem for ESL, it’s definitely a problem when more kids are interested in learning chess than will fit into the room. But like any good chess player, Mark has figured out his way around the obstacles, working in the library, borrowing classrooms and sometimes even spilling out into the hallway (“That wasn’t very workable”). For a few years, he even had his own classroom. Along the way, he has taken his students, many of whom are the low-performing students he works with in his regular instruction, from learning so they could play a bit of chess with their friends to competitors on the national stage.

On Columbus Day, during our annual Chess in the Park event, moved indoors to the New Rochelle Public Library due to weather, the National Scholastic Chess Foundation honored Mark for 20 years teaching chess in the schools.

Mark is an example of what the NSCF has been developing with its teacher training initiative as we are training teachers to be able to teach chess, at least at the introductory level.

“A lot of schools have these highly-rated chess players. I’m not a tournament chess player and I didn’t grow up playing chess. I am an ESL teacher and that is really my main focus. But I definitely see the benefits of teaching chess and how it helps students of every ability level, especially the students I serve. They have to shake hands and they have to make eye contact. When I first play a child, I will hold the handshake until they make eye contact. I know it’s just a board game, but the kids are socializing and interacting with one another and that is so needed today.”

Mark got his start when he started as an ESL teacher at PS291 in the Bronx. He was set up in a closet there too and a teacher in “another closet” was Alan Abrams who was teaching chess. Mark was sitting in on one of Alan’s classes and was asked to play against two of the 4th graders. “I didn’t play much chess, but was just about to graduate with my masters degree and these were elementary kids… how hard could it be?” He was beaten by both boys. Thus, his interest was sparked. “These kids were tough kids. I would hear their conversations and they involved carrying guns and knives, even though they were only in elementary school.” But he saw Alan making progress, actually getting them interested and good at chess. “Alan was not only the chess teacher, he dealt with conflict resolution and his personality was such that he gained their trust.”

Chess helps with self-esteem and self-control

“Many of these children who don’t do well in other subjects can perform on the chess board. It really helps with self-esteem and with self-control.… I like to tell the story of one boy Alan and I both taught. He was large for his age in 4th grade and then had to repeat the year. He couldn’t read and he had a lot of social problems. Many of the kids laughed at his deficits and picked on him. The first year I worked with him on his reading, but the following year Alan got him interested in chess and made a huge impact. Because he did well at chess, he earned the respect of the other students.”

Mark started helping take kids to NSCF tournaments with Alan. “The first tournament we took them to was in Greenwich. It was like the chess movies–underperforming kids from a low-income neighborhood where there wasn’t even a playground showing up to play other elementary kids whose school looked nicer than a college campus.” The kids, as it turned out, did remarkably well.

Chess at Columbus Elementary

The next year, Mark took a position at Columbus Elementary School and determined that, in addition to his ESL classes, he would continue to teach chess and started reading chess books to improve his own knowledge. “Alan used to have chess puzzles all over his walls and I would faithfully copy them. Now I was finding that he got these from (Bruce) Pandolfini and other books I was now reading myself!”

The Columbus program began modestly using photocopied puzzles and some discount store chess sets. In 1999, Mark took some of his players to a tournament in Sleepy Hollow where he met Sunil Weeramantry, executive director of the NSCF. “When Sunil found out what we were working with, he arranged for the NSCF to donate 10 boards and sets, a demo board and to give us 50% off the registration fee so our students could play in as many tournaments as possible. We’ve had a tremendous relationship ever since.” For several years, Mark was teaching chess during the day and NSCF chess instructor Polly Wright was leading an after school program. “That was when the program was the strongest really,” Mark said.

Parent Support

Mark also pointed out that the program, in its early years, was supported by some of the parents. “One student, Evan Posner, had a dad who was this traveling accountant. He would go to these meetings with different companies, and then, at the end of the meeting, ask for a few extra minutes; he’d tell the story about our little chess team and pass the hat. In 2001, we were able to go to Saratoga for the New York State championship and we came third in our section. Then we went to SuperNationals in Kansas City. We had three boys score 5 ½ games in K-6 under 900 and one little girl won 6 (out of 7). It was such a magical experience. In 2002, we again went to Nationals and our youngest players moved up to the K-3 Championship section. We came 12th, and that was against all these private schools with some of the best chess teachers in the nation.”

Afterwards, another couple stepped forward, Wendy and Martin Sanchez, to support chess at Columbus. They held monthly parent meetings, and coordinated events, such as a yearly spring fair, car washes and raffles, allowing Mark to take even more children to state and national events.

Beyond the chess board, at this time, Mark was in a position to access student test scores. “This was by no means a scientific study,” he said, “but all the children who were taking chess were showing improvement in their classes. It would have been interesting to be able to study this in more depth.”

The program changed a bit when Mark became a father himself. The class has since been limited to lunch times and it has been a struggle to teach all the grades and give them playing time. And the parent support also dwindled as students moved on to middle school and beyond. But one parent, Joan Waldron, came along in 2007 who has been a faithful and diligent supporter ever since. Even though her own son is now in 11th grade, Joan continued to support chess at Columbus Elementary. “I don’t know if I would have continued (with chess) without her ongoing support,” Mark said. Fundraising has taken a back seat as well but Mark still sends a team to Nationals every other year.

As for the results beyond the chess board, Mark said one of the parents hosts an annual summer party for the chess club and many former students come back to say hello and play some chess. Again, it’s only anecdotal he said, “But they tell me 99% of the children who were in the chess program have gone on to college – that’s pretty remarkable.”