Ferguson Chess program announcement

The world’s largest nonprofit health system has partnered with the St. Louis Chess Club and Scholastic Center to help launch a new after-school chess program for the Ferguson-Florissant school district.

Faculty, students, and staff gathered inside of Walnut Grove Elementary’s library on Tuesday, September 15 to hear of Ascension’s new collaboration. The program was opened on Tuesday for all 20 of the district’s middle and elementary schools.

Ascension, headquartered in St. Louis, is the nation’s leading nonprofit and faith-based healthcare system, offering personalized holistic care in 24 states and the District of Columbia. Ascension extends its services inside hospitals, outpatient centers, and senior, home health and long-term care facilities.

Among the excited children in the library stood three grandmasters: Four-time United States Champion Yasser Seirawan, Central America’s first grandmaster; Alejandro Ramirez; and the first African-American International Grandmaster of chess, Maurice Ashley.

Ashley, who is capable of playing 10 chess games at a time while blindfolded, came to the elementary school to attest to how chess changed his life for the better.

Ashley grew up in tough neighborhoods in Kingston, Jamaica and Brooklyn, New York. He is now a three-time national chess championship coach, two-time author, ESPN commentator, iPhone app designer, puzzle inventor and motivational speaker.

“Chess is something that can take you all over the world,” said Ashley. He told the students about the many places he has visited around the world and famous people he has met because of chess. Ashley told a fun story about how Jada-Pinkett Smith paid him to teach Will Smith chess for Valentine's Day. That relationship was accompanied with perks of attending Hollywood movie premieres.

“Every time I meet someone like that, I think, ‘Chess really did that for me?’”

Throughout his career, Ashley has reached out to at-risk youth and share his vision on the benefits of chess.

“One day you may compete in national championships,” Ashley told the students. “It’s a great game to learn and a lot of fun, and I’m really happy that Ascension is doing this. It takes great corporate partners to make things work sometimes.”

Jerry Meyers, a chess master, once wrote an article featured in the New York Times highlighting the benefits of chess programs in schools. Meyers cited a five-year study of seventh and eighth graders by Robert Ferguson of the Bradford School District in Pennsylvania. The study showed that test scores improved 17.3 percent for students regularly engaged in chess classes, compared with only 4.56 percent for children participating in other forms of “enrichment activities,” Dungeons and Dragons, problem solving with computers, independent study and creative writing.

Meyers also cited an experiment in Marina, California that indicated that after only 20 days of instruction in chess, students’ academic performance improved dramatically. George L. Stephenson, math department chairman, reported that 55 percent of students showed significant improvement in academic performance after this brief instruction in chess.

“Chess is another opportunity to give you more skills in your brain so that you become even smarter so you can work in places like Ascension and Ferguson-Florissant and all over this country,” said Ferguson-Florissant Superintendent Joseph Davis.

Three lucky students went on to play chess with the three grandmasters. Ashley says he plans to come back and visit the students at Walnut Grove Elementary to see if they have improved their games – in chess and life.

This story is published as part of a partnership between The Huffington Post and The St. Louis American.

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