|For more than a decade, Joe Ocol has used chess to champion change.
He is a math teacher at Earle STEM Academy in West Englewood. And his students – too often written off because of where they come from – have won major tournaments, met with a sitting U.S. president and earned coveted college scholarships for their skills.
“I always ask them: ‘Who is the king in your life?’ The king in your life is you,” Ocol said.
“So they see themselves as kings instead of pawns.”
Adversity is the norm for Ocol and his team.
Many of his students do not have dinner waiting for them at home, so Ocol pays out of pocket to feed them at practice after school. Many dread the summer, when violence spikes in Englewood. That’s when Ocol runs a chess camp to keep students safe.
It hasn’t been easy. But Ocol’s persistence is paying off.
In March, seventh-grader Tamya Fultz – one of Ocol’s star players – won first place in individual chess at Chicago Public Schools’ Academic Chess South Conference Playoffs. She was the only girl in the competition to place. And Ocol’s team placed third overall.
Three weeks earlier, Fultz took bronze at the Illinois state championship contest.
Among the medal winners, Fultz was the only girl, the only African-American and the only Chicago Public Schools student, Ocol told DNAinfo.
Fultz and her teammates will now have the chance to compete on the nation’s largest stage for youth chess. Ocol is taking the team of seven students to the U.S. Chess Federation SuperNationals in Nashville to compete from May 11-14 – a tournament that happens only once every four years.
Major tournaments like this are crucial, because they enable students to earn official ratings for their play. A rating of over 1800 makes a student eligible for a host of scholarship opportunities.
Four years ago, Ocol took a team from Faraday Elementary School on the West Side to the SuperNationals tournament. One of his students came home with a first place finish. Because of that, she won a spot at Whitney Young Magnet High School, and now has received a scholarship to attend the University of Illinois-Chicago, Ocol said.
Ocol’s selfless investment of time and money is paying dividends in a place of great need.
So as part of Teacher Appreciation Week, the Illinois Policy Institute is raising money to cover the costs of registration, lodging and meals for Ocol and his team during the upcoming tournament in Nashville. A gift of $5,000 would enable him to provide a once-in-a-lifetime experience for his students.
By rallying behind his beloved chess team, we can ensure teachers such as Ocol know how much they mean to Englewood, Chicago and the state of Illinois.