MEMPHIS, Tenn. - On a recent afternoon, in between her job as medical clerk at Germantown Methodist and the night class she needs to move up to pharmacy technician, Stephanie Thomas stopped by the chess room at Frederick Douglass School, off Chelsea.
Jasmine, her 12-year-old daughter, is one of several girls transforming the culture at a school in one of Tennessee's most impoverished neighborhoods and challenging gender-based stereotypes some still associate with the ancient game.
Jasmine sat near the back, searching a chess board for a familiar pattern learned in the 18 months since the school unexpectedly welcomed veteran Memphis educator Jeff Bulington and his chess-in-schools project.
One of the maxims printed out and taped to the wall: "Unless you analyze the position, you will achieve nothing."
In January, when Jasmine qualified for the open division of the Memphis Chess Club city championships, organizers told Bulington that it was a first for a female of any age. When Jasmine chose to play in the junior division, it was another Douglass girl, Shimera Paxton, who finished ahead of her in an undefeated run to that championship.
And over the weekend at the state's scholastic chess championships, there were eight qualifiers from West Tennessee - five of them girls from Douglass.
Stephanie Thomas also attended Douglass for elementary school, like her mother and grandmother before her, and marvels at the reputation already built, in such a relatively short time. Their ZIP code, 38108, was featured in the 2005 "Born to Die" project by The Commercial Appeal that looked at the high-mortality rate in what was termed the "infant death capital."
Of Tennessee's 1,476 census tracts, the neighborhood surrounding Douglass, a K-8 school, ranks 1,418 in median household income, at $19,150.
"A lot of people, when they hear Douglass, they think that these children don't do what they're supposed to do," Stephanie Thomas said. "But there are good kids in the neighborhood who really want to do something, be something. It's a big step up for the neighborhood."
Shelby County Schools' popular optional schools program has approved making chess Douglass' primary optional concentration for 2014-15, and Douglass is petitioning to become the only school in Tennessee with chess as a state-recognized academic offering.
Bulington and principal Lionel Cable are both too meticulous to yet claim a definite link between chess and the enormous gains Douglass showed last year on the state's standardized tests.
"It teaches the children how to process, to slow down and think before they react, and gives them an opportunity to understand, with any move they make, the consequences that come with that," Cable said.
Zack McMillin writes for The (Memphis, Tenn.) Commercial Appeal.
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