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Learning Life Lessons through Chess, and More

Joel (L) and Sebastian (R) from ACPS’s LINK Club are concentrating on their next chess move during their weekly lesson. (Courtesy of the LINK Club)

Innovative ACPS Program Helps At-Risk Students…At Home!

By Amanda M. Socci

[This story is also available in Spanish at:]

Thinking. Planning. Strategizing. Winning heroically. Losing disappointingly. Playing cooperatively with others. Demonstrating good sportsmanship. And learning the fine art of self-control when your opponent suddenly says “checkmate.” These are all skills learned while playing the game of chess.

In Alexandria’s West End, chess is coming into the lives of at-risk Alexandria City Public School students at a good time. Where fist fights and visits to the school principal were once the norm, calmness and self-control are creeping in, thanks to the efforts of a dedicated ACPS coordinator, Dawud Rawlings.

Rawlings is the manager, peacemaker and multipurpose hands-on guy for all programs in the LINK Club, ACPS’s after-school curriculum at the Brent Place apartment building. A graduate of T.C. Williams High School, Rawlings wanted a way to give back to the community and became the full-time LINK Club Coordinator in October 2018.

The LINK Club has given Rawlings ample opportunities to teach and mentor students, and to develop creative ways to help them solve their problems. One of those ways is teaching them chess. Rawlings sees firsthand that chess lessons are making a difference. He sees students making connections between the strategies they learn in chess and the problem-solving and coping mechanisms they use in daily life.

Zebra had a chance to witness some of Rawlings’ chess mentoring magic during a recent tour of LINK Club classrooms. As Rawlings handed out the LINK books to a group of 5th grade boys, he jumped right into action, not wasting a second of their captive attention. In a commanding voice, Rawlings asked why it’s important for the boys to learn to play chess. While only a few could answer this question, all the boys obediently opened their books to record their responses to his question. This was important, as the students know they must demonstrate active participation by writing in their LINK books.

And so began the weekly chess lesson that would help the students learn to make good decisions and ultimately transfer those skills to everyday life. No one predicted that chess would bring about so many changes in student behavior, such as improved anger management, critical thinking and math skills.

Dawud Rawlings explains the intricacies of chess to LINK Club members. (Courtesy of the LINK Club)

What is the LINK Club?

The LINK Club is a 21st Century Community Learning Center program that operates after school every weekday when school is in session. “LINK” stands for Linking Instruction/Nurturing Knowledge. The LINK Club is administered only at the affordable-housing location of Brent Place apartments in the West End.

According to Shana Samson of ACPS’s Office of School, Business and Community Partnerships, the LINK Club is the first after-school program in the state of Virginia to offer services to students at their homes. This is important, as most after-school programs are only offered onsite at the schools.

Funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, the LINK Club provides academic enrichment programming in many subjects, with an emphasis on math and literacy, to the K-5th grade ACPS students at Brent Place. It is offered free to families; however, students who participate must be registered, actively attend and participate each day when school is in session. As of December 2018, the LINK Club had registered 65 ACPS K-5th grade students.

LINK Club programs begin at 2:30 p.m. with welcome and a snack, followed by a community circle gathering to encourage students to talk and develop relationships. From 3:30 to 4:30, ACPS teachers work with students in a power hour, which includes one-on-one sessions, tutoring or homework help. Students are split into the K-2nd group and the 3rd-5th grade group. A third area is dedicated to specialized learning, such as hosting students from one grade level on specific projects, including chess, STEM and art.

From 4:30 to 5:30, ACPS teachers and volunteers give students hands-on opportunities to learn about science and history in fun, interactive ways. From 5:30 to 6:00, students eat dinner and are dismissed to their parents. Specialty elective clubs take place each Friday. These include visual and performing arts, sports and recreation, and STEM activities.

Addressing Academic, Social and Economic Needs

Samson and her team extensively researched the needs of families living in the West End and how those needs affected their children’s education. Why were students not participating in after-school activities? Why were test scores so low? Why was there a lot of absenteeism? Why was juvenile delinquency rampant?

Families who qualify to live at Brent Place apartments earn $16,000 per year or less, with little money for essentials, let alone extras like after-school activities. Many speak limited or no English. It is common to see immigrants recently arrived from Spanish-speaking countries who have very limited means. A lack of transportation and of childcare pose difficulties as well.

To improve the educational experience for these children, Samson and her team devised a plan to deliver academic services in the students’ home setting, using a holistic approach that would also help their families. They identified an appropriate grant, won funding for three years, and celebrated by opening the LINK Club in October 2017.

ACPS joined forces with multiple community partners to bring the LINK Club to life while providing wrap-around support for students and their families. The City of Alexandria’s Department of Community and Human Services (DCHS) provides weekly support groups and workforce development training to parents while the students participate in the LINK Club.

Homes for America, a nonprofit housing development organization that provides affordable rental housing to people in the mid-Atlantic region is another partner. Homes for America owns the Brent Place apartment building; it donated space to administer the LINK Club, using its own funds to renovate empty apartment space into three roomy classroom spaces.

Readers can see the kids in action playing chess here: and can and learn more information about the LINK Club at the ACPS website: and on Twitter: .

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