History. The Highland Park program started in 2008 after several months of planning by a committee representing each of the 11 schools in District 112, which serves students in grades K-8 in Highland Park and Highwood. Committee members include parents, coaches, PTO/PTA representatives (including after-school program coordinators) and directors of a few pre-existing small clubs.

The genesis of the program is described in a report issued by the committee in May 2008 entitled “Open Doors: A Proposal to Increase Access and Create a Program of Excellence in District 112 Chess.” The report, which appears on the Highland Park website (http://hpchess.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=category&layout=blog&id=25&Itemid=64), described the problems with then-existing programs in the district: inadequate instruction, high cost, low attendance, lack of permanence, and scarce opportunities to compete. It made a series of recommendations, including setting up large parent-run clubs feeding from multiple schools, tiered instruction to serve students at different levels of ability, standardization of curricula, open enrollment regardless of students’ ability to pay, increased funding (much of which would later come from the district’s PTO’s and PTA’s), increased networking, the establishment of a district-wide website, more opportunities to compete, and the encouragement of a non-competitive track at all clubs in the district.

These goals were largely achieved during the summer of 2008, and the District 112 school administration joined in announcing the program that fall. The District provided key logistical support, including space for after-school programs and weekend tournaments, security screening for coaches and volunteers, payroll services, and help on publicity. Advice and support was provided by the director of the Evanston program, who helped Highland Park recruit coaches and gave permission for sections of the Evanston scholastic website to be included on Highland Park’s site. The program received coverage in local newspapers and formed an alliance with the Highland Park Public Library, which continues to sponsor some of its programs. The program now serves more than 400 students and is the most popular extra-curricular activity in the district.

Major features of the program. The program provides central support, but individual clubs have developed differently.  The clubs share a common curriculum for beginners and intermediates (available on the program’s website) and clubs all use the same club management software, Think Like a King’s Chess Club Manager, to keep track of wins and losses and generate club ratings and rankings. (The software is described in our section called “Starting a Chess Program” above.) All clubs also feed their roster information, including parent names, phone numbers and email addresses, into a shared Google online spreadsheet. The common spreadsheet facilitates district-wide emails about tournaments, workshops, articles, and other items of general interest.

Three of the district’s five clubs meet twice a week for two hours; the other two meet once a week. Club members receive one or two 45-minute lessons a week. The program also runs occasional training sessions for the district’s top players.

Website. The program’s website contains current news, profiles of its coaches and club directors, articles about the program, a list of nearby tournaments, a section describing how tournaments work and listing tournament results, particulars and contact information for the program’s clubs, a list of available tutors, the program’s basic curriculum, photos, and special features. It is visited by hundreds of visitors a month.

Coaches. The program employs a mix of adult and student coaches. Some of the adult coaches are parents or others who are retired or have flexible work schedules. Many serve as volunteers. Coaches meet from time to time to share tips and best practices. Some teach at more than one club. Two committee members do most of the recruitment of new coaches, often networking outside the district.

All the clubs use student coaches as well. High schoolers are generally paid $20 per session and usually teach intermediate-strength players. Some clubs use middle schoolers to help teach and mentor K-1’s. Student coaches age 14 or older are eligible for work permits, allowing them to be paid, but most of the program’s middle-school coaches work as volunteers. A few have been honored at city-wide award ceremonies.

Parent volunteers, most of whom are not chess players, help oversee club sessions.

Tutoring. In the 2009-2010 academic year, approximately 30 kids in the program received private tutoring from adult and high school coaches, a number which is steadily rising.

Tournaments and matches. The program runs inexpensive unrated Saturday tournaments structured to foster team solidarity: team awards are based on the scores of a club’s top players across all age groups. These tournaments are open to players from outside Highland Park. One Highland Park club director also sponsors small inexpensive open rated tournaments attended by adults and some of the stronger Highland Park youth players.

District clubs play against each other in after-school matches, which have thus far been organized on an ad hoc basis. The format is less formal than tournaments, with continuous re-pairing of players after their games end and pizza served toward the end of the match. The district-wide committee is planning to set up a more formal league to promote intra-district matches. The committee has also organized a “District Team” comprised of the strongest players from all the clubs, which has played several matches against teams from other areas.

Budgets. Club budgets range from $1500-$3000, most of which is used to pay coaches.  Funds come from two sources. PTO’s and PTA’s in the five host schools support students from those schools in varying amounts. District-wide, most students attend clubs for free. The remainder are asked to pay annual membership fees of from $75 to $100. The program has a liberal program of scholarships for those who cannot afford the fees.

Attendance from feeder schools is lower than at host schools, partly because after-school busing between schools is not available. Participation from the district’s middle schools is also relatively low, but is expected to increase as kids who attend clubs in elementary school move up.

In retrospect: The Highland Park program was built “bottom up,” and it took months to recruit representatives from each of the district’s 11 schools to serve on the planning committee. Program directors now believe that a “top down” approach beginning with the superintendent or the district’s principals might have saved considerable time.