April 4, 2014

Bret Harte chess players state-ranked

Bret Harte Elementary has three state-ranked chess players in its afterschool club, winning against kids from top schools. But their hopes for national titles could be dashed by a school district policy against out-of-state trips for younger students.

Arely Raya seems wise beyond her 7 years. Ranked 112th among female chess players in Northern California, Arely has learned to win. But perhaps even more impressive, she has learned to lose.

“You get to learn when you play chess. If I lose a game, I learn from it. When you lose, you get better,” the second-grader said matter-of-factly between rounds at the Bret Harte Elementary Chess Club. The club runs most school days from last bell until 4:30 or 5 p.m.

Across from Arely, Daniela Garcia, 11, concentrated. “What I like about (chess) is you can focus on it. You can try your best,” she said. She’s played video games, Daniela said, but chess is more fun. She says that even after cheerfully admitting it took four competitions before she won a match.

“She lost every game. She had to come tell me she lost. She had to tell her parents she lost,” said chess coach and Bret Harte teacher Kevin Cripe. “What did your parents say, Daniela?”

“To keep trying and never give up. Just keep trying,” Daniela said with a grin.

“And she came back after that with a first place,” Cripe said, beaming around the room at 22 young players. “They have a great attitude and they don’t give up.”

That don’t-give-up attitude is being put to the test on another front. The team has 15 players and nine chaperones ready to head to Dallas in May for the National Elementary Chess Championships. But school district concerns may keep them home. Taking elementary students on a five-day out-of-state trek was not approved by the district, even with the club raising all the money.

Cripe and assistant chess coach Tom Crane protested the decision at a Modesto City Schools board meeting. “These students have established themselves with a presence at state and regional level,” Crane said. Trips for other contests get approved, he said, and “these students want the same right.”

Cripe called the students “shining stars” and told board members, “At some point, the U.S. Chess Federation is going to call Arely’s parents and ask if she’d like to go to worlds.”

Back in the classroom, Cripe said the club gives him energy, even after a difficult day. “Watching kids tackle things that are massively hard – and they do great at it,” he said.

Facing flashcards and a time clock, fourth-grader Oscar Ricardo said he likes planning the attack. “You get to study tactics and you get to be a better chess player,” he said.

Juana Alvarez, also a fourth-grader, said as she gets better in chess, her grades are going up in math. “It’s awesome,” she said.

Most players on the Bret Harte team have only been playing six months or less, yet three girls are state-ranked. Besides Arely, fourth-grader Liliana Flores stands at 106 on the Northern California women’s list and sister Alondra Raya, a fifth-grader, is rated 101st. Those numbers stand on a list full of adults, and their wins come against students from among the highest-achieving schools in the state.

Arely’s last winning set came March 8 against kids from three Bay Area schools with near-perfect academic scores: 996, 971 and 959 out of a possible 1,000. Bret Harte’s averaged state tests score is 690. Percentage of poor children at her foes’ schools: 5 percent, 5 percent and 2 percent. Bret Harte’s percentage: 98 percent.

The contrast of backgrounds is stark at chess tournaments set amid airy architecture of the Bay Area’s top schools, and the students are very aware of the difference, Cripe said. “They’re unique.”

The district did not respond to Modesto Bee requests for its policies on student trips. Modesto City Schools does approve out-of-state student trips, but generally for junior high and older students.

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