Although he’s no longer a member of the Chicago Teacher’s Union, Joseph Ocol has made tremendous strides for his students through his chess program. Not only are student test scores up at Earle STEM Academy in the southside Englewood neighborhood, but the school also has a near perfect attendance record. Ocol says, “My main goal is to make them better persons so that they can contribute to the world.” Joseph Ocol joins Dan and Amy to discuss the successes of his students and what resources they still need.
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Proft: Good morning, Dan and Amy. So a couple years we took notice of the story of a teacher and chess coach, Joseph Ocol who teaches at the Earle STEM Academy in Englewood on Chicago’s South Side. And he started a chess program there, and for starting a chess program there he drew the ire of his fellow faculty members… Jacobson: Well, because they had a one-day...like a furlough day? And he didn’t take it, because he wanted to be with his kids. And he was expelled from the Union. Yeah, I don’t know if he’s back in, or out, or what’s going on. Proft: Targeted for elimination by Karen Lewis, and her friends there… Jacobson: Yeah, for not joining the one-day strike. Proft: The red-shirts, as they are. But Ocol has kept on, and continued coaching that chess team, and great effect. Back this Spring, the US Chess Federation Supernaturals...Super Nationals, excuse me, tournament in Nashville, largest chess tournament in history, hundreds of schools, 6000 students competing from around the country. Earle STEM Academy won THREE Super Nationals trophies, one team and two individual. One of his champions is as young as, I think, third grade. So it’s really an amazing story, an underreported story, I guess but he’s not locked up and walking with the Teachers’ Union, he’s focused on, I don’t know, teaching chess and imparting wisdom and intellectual curiosity and strategic thinking into kids, which I thought as a teacher is what you’re supposed to do, but anyway. But for more on where the chess team stands and where things are standing generally speaking at Earle STEM, we’re pleased to be joined once again by Joseph Ocol, Joseph thanks so much for joining us, appreciate it. Ocol: Hi, good morning Dan. Good morning, Amy. Good morning, Chicago. Thank you so much for giving me this opportunity to be on your station. Proft: So...oh, no. It’s a pleasure to circle back with you. So, I mentioned how well your team did at the tournament back in May. Tell us how things are going otherwise with the chess team, the program there at Earle STEM, and the kids. Ocol: We’re continuing with the program, in fact I have more kids this year and a lot of younger kids. I have Pre-K kids who have joined the chess team, I have kindergarten kids, I have a lot of younger kids this year. We’re hoping that we’ll be able to compete in the incoming national tournament, which would be next month, and I’m proud to say that our school has also become a Level-One school with almost perfect attendance, the number of our kids. Jacobson: Oh...almost makes me want to cry… Ocol: And last Saturday, our kids won three first-place trophies in the Chicago Latino Chess Championship at the Chicago Public Library, Lozano Branch. We just want to compete, I just want the kids to keep on competing, give them the chance to compete, we’re not seeking 4PP, though we would appreciate the opportunity, and for them to be able to shine, because give them the opportunity to shine, they will shine. Jacobson: Well, I know CPS is strapped for cash… Proft: *sarcastically* Oh, yeah! Jacobson: ...and it’s hard to have extracurricular activities… Proft: *still sarcastically* ...strapped for cash… Jacobson: ...so, how are you surviving? Do you have fundraisers, or is there a place that we can go to help you? Ocol: Yeah, we’re doing fundraising, and we welcome any opportunity for help. We’re not complaining, I’m not complaining, just want to do what I can do as a teacher. And with regard to the Union, I’m no longer a member of the Union, I was kicked out of the Union, but I have no regrets as long as I’ve done my part for the kids. Jacobson: So even years later, they wouldn’t let you back in the Union? Proft: Why would he even want to go back? Ocol: Well, I’m...I’m still not a member… Proft: *sarcastically* Yeah, and I’m sure you just miss them terribly. Ocol: Oh no I do...I do not. Proft: *laughing* Oh no, I know! I know you don’t! I got that. Jacobson: The thing is, do they still take your union dues? Ocol: Yes, they still take my union dues. Proft: Yeah, sure…*sarcastically* “their fair share”. For not… Jacobson: Only in Illinois… Proft: Well no… Jacobson: Hopefully not for much longer? Proft: Yeah, the Janis case next year may change that. But Joseph, how is the school in terms of supporting the kids in your program? Ocol: Oh, the school has been supportive, as well as Chicago Public Schools. I’m not complaining, I’m just doing what I can to campaign for funds to help the kids whatever way I can. Proft: And do you have any Gary Kasparov’s...any budding Gary Kasparov’s in your crew? Are we gonna see somebody, are we going to see some international chess master taking on...I don’t know, Big Blue or something? Ocol: I have a number of potentials, including Tamiya...Tamiya Folks. She’s our top player, but this is her last year. She’s being...she’s applying at Whitney Young, hoping she’ll be accepted, she’ll have to take the test anyway next month. But we’re trying to train some more kids. But my program also entails for graduates, those who are in high school, to come back and mentor other kids. And that’s what we’re trying to do, and I have six former Earle students, already in high school, they come every now and then to mentor other kids. Jacobson: How wonderful… Proft: How do you see other kids change through their participation in your chess program? Ocol: Big change. You know, first of all, 90% of our kids are below poverty level. So this Englewood, you know we’re trying to improve their concept and lives, and we try to get them to be in the school, after school, to see some other opportunities. So my goal and my mission is to make sure that they become productive citizens of the world, and that’s my main goal. It’s not about winning, it’s just to change them, to become better persons, to be able to contribute to the world… Jacobson: And it’s sad to say...it’s sad to say that they’re safer inside than being on the streets...correct? Ocol: Yes, yes. 4 to 6pm, that’s the time when we have the chess program, Monday...Monday to Friday. And Saturdays we compete, we try to compete, certain tournaments that don’t charge registration fees. Proft: Has this...has the success of your program there at Earle STEM spawned other schools to start chess programs? Ocol: I believe so. We have more schools now having chess programs, and we have more competitors now, welcome competitors. Because the kids would like to compete, and we like the opportunity to be able to compete. And not just at Englewood, not just in Chicago, not just in Illinois, but nationwide. Jacobson: And you said attendance is up? I mean, have more people enrolled and they’re staying in school and they want to be there because of the chess program? Ocol: I believe so because we just became...we’ve just become a Level One School. Our school has just become Level One. And one of the factors there is the attendance...the just about perfect attendance of our kids, as well as the high scores in their NWA. You know, chess gives one the chance to develop the critical thinking skills...that’s the least expensive of all activities, and yet it’s one of the most effective in the developing of critical thinking skills in kids. Proft: Well, don’t be afraid to tell your kids to sweep the leg, if they need to, in a tough match. He is Joseph Ocol, teacher, chess coach at Earle STEM Academy in Englewood, Joseph thanks...congratulations first of all for the success of your kids and that program there, it’s great to see what you’re doing for those kids and what they’re accomplishing under your tutelage, and continued success there. And we’ll continue to keep track of you and spread the word, so people can continue to support the program. Ocol: Thank you, Dan. I just want to take this opportunity also if there are computers...even if they are used computers, it would be a big help to us. Because we have a program now where the kids are able to compete online, it will save us also on travel cost… Proft: Computers...okay… Ocol: So we just want to request if there are donors for computers, it would be a big help to our...to our program. Proft: And if someone wants to make a donation for the acquisition of those computers or donate those computers...Earle STEM Academy, Joseph Ocol, O-C-O-L, is the chess coach...is there any other information you want to provide? Ocol: Umm, no. Just the players...will be competing next month, we hope to be competing next month in the national tournament...next month...and also this coming February there’s a state tournament. So we’re hoping to get some funding for the kids to compete. You know, just to give them the chance...for the opportunity to compete. And I know they will shine, just the opportunity to shine, and they will shine. Proft: Yeah. Jacobson: Well, bless you. Proft: I could, I mean look Joseph, I just recently acquired a 5th and 6th grade girls volleyball team, over at Blaine, so I’m in the market to do more acquisitions in other realms, and CPS, and maybe this will be one. So Joseph Ocol, thanks so much for joining us, continued success, congratulations on the success you’ve already achieved, as well as your kids. Appreciate it. Ocol: Thank you Dan. Thank you Amy. Thank you Chicago.