Determined. Focused. Strategic. Children from Franklin Upper Elementary in the small rural town of Bude, Mississippi block out everything around them when they gather in a room full of chess boards in Dr. Jeff Bulington’s classroom in the Franklin Upper Elementary school. Silently, their minds working hard to make sure the next move is correct, students advance a king, queen, rook, bishop, knight or pawn. Sometimes it’s with a bit of apprehension. Usually it’s with great confidence, as Bulington coaches them. He encourages them to “listen to the board.” Evidently they listen well, as Bulington recently won 'Chess Educator of the Year' at the University of Texas Dallas.
So how did a middle-aged man from the north end up teaching chess to children in a county with just 7,000 residents? Bulington once taught chess and mentored school champions in Memphis. An anonymous benefactor asked him to come teach a few demonstration lessons in Franklin County, and soon afterwards, offered him a job. Bulington isn’t actually an employee of the Franklin County School System. Instead, his salary is paid by the Southwest Mississippi Chess Foundation, a 501c3 charity. The Foundation’s mission is to promote the teaching and learning of chess for its social, intellectual and academic benefits. One of the chief goals is to foster chess in Southwest Mississippi and beyond, which includes developing strong chess players who compete at the highest levels but also use chess as a model for other academic learning.
Most of Bulington’s time is spent at the Franklin County Chess Center on Main Street in Meadville. The Chess Center is in the old Whittington/Nigel Zachary Wentworth Building, constructed in 1913 and renovated in 2015. After climbing polished hardwood floors to the second floor, students find their seat at one of the many rows of tables where chessboards are neatly arranged. The room can accommodate 100 children at a time. Large windows line the walls, allowing plenty of sunlight to steam into the room.
Students who once had little chance of ever leaving the county, much less continuing on to college after high school, are now traveling to tournaments around the country. In a Mississippi Department of Education-produced video which is on their YouTube channel, students talk about how chess has helped them learn patience and improve their skills in mathematics and reading. “Chess provides a new context in which to think about things in the curriculum, providing a new road in to language arts, social studies, mathematics and science for kids,” Bulington said. Everett Mason, a sixth grader in the video, said he’s won “several medals, and a trophy in Louisville, Kentucky and one at Mississippi State.”
Chris Kent, superintendent of Franklin County Schools, has two children who have played chess in the program. “We had a meeting with the Chess Foundation in March 2015. That was the first time we had heard of this program.” Since the chess program’s inception, Kent has received reports from parents and teachers that the students are approaching homework differently – more thoughtfully – and that their grades are improving.
The program got the attention of a producer with CBS’s “60 Minutes” program. A crew was sent to Meadville to produce a story, and over 15 million viewer watched the episode which originally aired March 26, 2017. The show featured Bulington along with his chess-playing students and their parents.
Chess is offered as an elective beginning in kindergarten in Franklin County Schools, and goes through the eighth grade, with a new grade added each year. Information on the Chess Center and the Southwest Mississippi Chess Foundation can be found at www.franklinchess.com.
PHOTO CREDIT: Chess News
Susan Marquez is an accomplished
and much-published writer who also
serves as the president of the
Mississippi Writers Guild