On a city school landscape that's littered with ruinous examples of missed opportunity and unrealized potential, Jason Steele and Benjamin Lefstein stand as monuments to what could be.
They are college-bound upperclassmen at two of Baltimore's most prestigious magnet schools. They are sharp and engaging. Each is a three-time winner of the city chess club's annual tournament; each vied for a fourth crown yesterday at this year's contest.
For Jason and Benjamin, their love of learning was sparked in the city schools' gifted and talented education (GATE) program, where they learned to play chess and enjoy academics as elementary students.
For thousands of young city students today -- kids who could be the future Jasons and Benjamins -- that program is largely the stuff of dreams.
Over nearly two decades of systemwide penny-pinching and shifting priorities, gifted and talented education has just about gone the way of gray metal lunch boxes and fountain pens.
The program gets a little more than $3 million of the system's $831 million annual budget, and in each of the past two years, GATE programs have been cut while others grew drastically.
City school officials say they're planning to turn that around, and they've hired an administrator to deal specifically with developing advanced-learning programs at every level.
But the system's dearth of accelerated programs has some observers calling for a recommitment to excellence in city schools.
"We used to have one of the best gifted and talented programs in the state," said Steve Alpern, who has organized the citywide chess tournament for 10 years.
Alpern used to work in the system's gift ed and talented office before it was decimated; now he works in instructional technology and organizes the chess tournament on the side.
"But why isn't it supported anymore?" Alpern asked. "I like to focus on the positive side of the club, but I wonder what we could achieve with more support."
In suburban school systems such as Baltimore and Howard counties, gifted and talented programs are well funded, start as early as first or second grade and often include as many as a third of the students in a class.
The city chess program's history is a good example of Baltimore's on-and-off commitment.
It started as part of GATE in 1990, with full funding from the city, and the first tournament drew students from 10 schools, including Leith Walk and Brehms Lane elementaries, where Jason Steele and Benjamin Lefstein attended school, respectively.
A year later, the city withdrew its money, and the tournament has been paid for since by the private Abell Foundation.
It has thrived and grown with the foundation's backing, and this year's tournament drew more than 120 children from 40 schools. But Alpern wonders what message the system is sending by relegating the chess club to a privately funded interest.
"Look at these kids," he said yesterday, while children as young as 8 leaned over chess boards nearby.
"They're excited about something they've learned in school. How often do you see that? Shouldn't we be supporting this more?"
He points to Jason and Benjamin as proof of the program's long-term worth.
"I've watched these kids since they were third- or fourth-graders," Alpern said. "And now they're back nine years later to play again. How many things do you see kids stick with for that long?"
Jason is a 16-year-old junior at Polytechnic Institute, enrolled in the school's engineering program and planning to go to college in two years to become a mechanical engineer.
He remembers clearly when his third-grade GATE teacher, Ms. Harrison, taught him to play chess, and he knows it has helped him in school.
"The thinking you have to do in chess helps you with the problems teachers might give you," Jason said.
"Learning and studying strategies helps you remember formulas and things in math."
Benjamin, a 17-year-old senior at City College High School, learned chess in his fourth-grade GATE program at Brehms Lane.
He's headed to Hampshire College next year to pursue a degree in English; he wants to write science fiction after that.
"I don't know if Hampshire has a chess club," he said. "But if they don't, I can start one."
In yesterday's tournament, Benjamin and Jason played several hard-fought matches, but ultimately lost to students from other city high schools.
Alpern said that fact reinforces the program's depth in the city.
"For them to have a challenge here says a lot," Alpern said.
Betty Morgan, the system's chief academic officer, said rejuvenating Baltimore's accelerated elementary programs is one of her priorities.
"We've hired an advanced-learning coordinator and we've completed some grants for enriched learning," Morgan said. "I expect to see an expansion of advanced-placement classes in high schools and more rigorous academics in general at the high school level."
Morgan acknowledges that programs have been dwindling in recent years, but since she was hired in December, she has worked to change that outlook.