The legacy of competitive scholastic chess in Brownsville received unexpected vindication this past week in Austin when state District Judge John K. Dietz declared Texas’ system of public school finance unconstitutional.
Dietz ruled that when the Legislature cut funding for Texas schools by $5.4 billion in the 2010 biennium and at the same time raised academic standards it violated the Texas Constitution.
Two-thirds of the school districts in Texas sued to overturn the state’s system of financing public education. When final arguments concluded, Dietz announced his decision from the bench, upholding all major claims by the school districts. The decision will be appealed to the Texas Supreme Court.
In a prelude to the ruling Dietz recounted the story of how competitive chess caught on like wildfire in the early 1990s in Brownsville and how JJ Guajardo’s chess teams at Russell Elementary won seven straight state chess championships.
Brownsville went on to become a national chess powerhouse.
Guajardo, now the coordinator for social studies programs in the Mission Consolidated Independent School District, said he discovered the powerful influence chess could have almost by accident.
“These were just sixth graders, good kids, but here in the Valley they do come with baggage, hindrances,” Guajardo said. “They also come with a lot of good points. There were two boys, Fernando Zamora, who went on to graduate from Harvard, and Andy Zamora, who was brilliant but very hyperactive and tended to get into difficulties. He was just really bored.
“One day Fernando challenged me to a game of chess. I always had a chess board in my room, and I fancied myself a decent chess player, but Fernando beat me. But Andy, just by watching the game, picked things up — and Andy just became consumed with the game. Other kids began getting involved.”
Before long Guajardo was organizing chess tournaments and taking teams to state championships.
“These were just mischievous sixth graders, not gang bangers or anything like that, good kids,” Guajardo said. “Mrs. Ayala (the principal, Rachel Ayala) was very supportive of us. She found us funds and gave us permission to go to the state championships. The key to success is parental support. … What an amazing chess nursery that was and my kids showed no mercy (in tournaments).”
Next month will be the 20th anniversary of Russell winning the first of what would be seven straight state chess championships. Before long, all of Brownsville was involved, including private schools.
“It was not something that just landed in our laps,” Guajardo said. “Excellence does not just land in your lap. It is something that happens when you do all of the right things.”
Guajardo said teams from St. Mary’s Catholic School, and Gonzales, Egly, and Perez elementary schools “started playing really well against my kids.”
“The competition just grew citywide. It caught fire. It was a phenomenon thing that you would not expect to happen where 80 or 90 percent of the kids start school not knowing English.”
Dietz only became aware of chess in Brownsville, Harlingen and the Rio Grande Valley after a bilingual teacher from Sam Houston Elementary in Harlingen testified at the school finance trial and he then Googled the matter.
“This story is a perfect illustration of what I call the miracle of education,” Dietz wrote in remarks prepared for delivery at the trial’s conclusion. “At first blush we let our pre-judgments guide our thinking. We see these students that are economically disadvantaged and think, ‘Oh my, they haven’t had the background I’ve had. English is not their primary language, and how are they ever going to succeed?’ We tend to concentrate on the deficits. On the other hand, the superintendents, the principals and teachers like JJ Guajardo, who work with these children on a daily basis, focus not on the deficits but rather the tremendous potential of each of these children. They give these children an avenue to succeed, they unlock the great potential in these children. The miracle and promise of education is unlocking the potential in every child, as you find them, allowing them to grow and to achieve.”
As the story of scholastic chess unfolded in Brownsville Independent School District schools, the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College was taking notice.
“It’s extraordinary,” UTB President Juliet V. Garcia said of the city’s chess legacy. “I just think it’s so delicious that people are finally thinking about the opportunities rather than the deficits.
“The point is that if these kids can do chess, they can do physics, they can do math, they can do law and they can do medicine. … The chess story is powerful because it speaks to the potential of the kids in South Texas if they are given the opportunity.”
UTB-TSC also recognized chess’ potential as a recruitment tool.
“We started a chess team because we saw the swell of interest in the kids of Brownsville,” Garcia said. “We thought, ‘Well they’ve got to have a place to play chess … and they have just gotten better and better. The last several years they’ve gone to the Pan American Championships. This year they beat Harvard and Princeton. Our A team beat Harvard’s A team. Then the next day, our B team beat Princeton’s A team.” (The team was disappointed, though, because it didn’t qualify for the final four of collegiate chess.)
Meanwhile, BISD has embraced chess, devoting $360,000 a year to making it possible for students to participate. The district regularly wins state and national championships. At least 2,000 students participate with 30 elementary schools, 11 middle schools and six high schools fielding teams.
“Brownsville’s chess legacy is an amazing story about student potential,” BISD Superintendent Carl A. Montoya said. “For over 20 years, generations of Brownsville ISD students, with the unwavering support of their families, the school district and the community, have consistently ranked in the top tier of national competition. We are justifiably proud of our tradition of chess excellence and appreciate Judge Dietz’s acknowledgement of our students.”