Chess champs give City a boost across the board

March 19, 1995|By MICHAEL OLESKER

From chess, I know from nothing. In my time, which everybody recalls as The Great Smart Guy Era of Baltimore City College, we all played a brilliant intellectual game across the cafeteria tables, where one guy would hold his forefingers together and his thumbs straight up to form a goal post, and the other player tried to flick a matchbook through the extended forefingers like a field goal.

Great Smart Guy Era, no?

Well, no, not exactly. Not compared to today, anyway. I know the city schools are in trouble, and I know the old grads say the glory days of City College happened a long time ago, so how does anybody explain this thing that's happening with City's chess team?

And not only chess, either, but football and baseball and Chinese and Hebrew and DNA studies in the biology lab and a Grand National Championship in music and Merit Scholars and every kid in the school taking Latin and 94 percent of the graduates going on to four-year colleges.

And chess, yes, a state championship captured by the chess team a week ago at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, and the team headed for the national chess finals in Chicago next month which, now that you mention it, is a long way from guys sitting at the cafeteria tables long ago flicking matchbooks at each other.

"They're pretty normal kids," says chess coach James Schreier, who also teaches English. "Black kids, white kids. Male and female. Middle class, working class. They're not one-dimensional kids, the eccentric, Bobby Fischer types who are obsessive. They're regular kids who just happen to be excellent chess players."

Like Donte Everett, who learned how to play the game in a West Baltimore shoeshine parlor. Donte's also a varsity basketball player. And Aaron Redfern and Maurice Gardner, who play in the school band, and Corey Gajewski, who plays varsity lacrosse.

They're following some pretty interesting footsteps. Two years ago, the school won the state chess championship. Last year, it was second. Among the players were Jawan Parker, an Honor Society student who played Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata at his Senior Farewell; Harry Martin, star pitcher on the baseball team; and Zonon Pantazonis, now a presidential scholar at UMBC, who wants to teach Greek and Latin.

"I've been associated with baseball, football and basketball," says coach Schreier. "This is the most intense athletic competition I've ever experienced. Nothing else is even close. And these kids relish it."

"It's a symbol of the renaissance at this school," says Jeff Malter, executive director of City's Board of Visitors, who's hitting on something important.

As everybody knows, the school system's had its troubles: academic failures, big numbers of dropouts, tense physical confrontations.

City went through its own troubles, back in the 1970s, and was shut down for a couple of years while the place underwent about $8.5 million in refurbishments and then reopened with some new looks: female students for the first time in its long history and an all-college prep-academic program. About half the kids now are female, about 85 percent black.

What makes it a valuable symbol for the whole city is that it draws kids from every neighborhood in town, from all backgrounds -- and yet, in a time of much groaning over the modern urban plight, the school is accomplishing marvelous things.

Everybody takes at least a year of Latin, and there have also been courses in Chinese, Russian, Japanese and Hebrew. Though City emphasizes humanities, the school finished eighth in a state science competition. There are five computer labs, and biology lab where the kids are doing DNA research, "studying )) the kind of thing," says Malter, "that kids are studying at the graduate level in college."

Two City kids, Michael Scarcella and Xi Ling Deng, won gold medals in the National Latin Examination, and 29 other students won awards. Two students, Jessica Krick and Julia Bank, won scholarships to study in Germany. Last year, seven of the school's music ensembles won national awards. There's a 57-member National Honor Society.

(And, just for balance, the football team went 8-2 last year, after winning 29 straight games over a three-year period, and the baseball team went 23-2 last year.)

What's any of this got to do with the rest of the city schools? Only everything.

There are still oases of excellence in the system, places like City and Poly and Western, places like the School for the Arts, which take kids from all backgrounds and find wonderful stuff inside of them. Surely, there are lessons here for other schools.

"What it tells us," says Malter, "is that good leaders and dedicated teachers are essential, and that a supportive alumni helps tremendously. City's alumni has come through tremendously. They know that it takes money to make some of these things happen. Plus, the big thing, the kids work very, very hard. They want to be excellent."

Like the chess team. True, these kids never flicked a matchbook across a cafeteria table, the way we did back in the alleged Smart Guy Era of City. But, as a symbol of modern excellence, they're a symbol for every school in town.

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