LITHONIA, Ga. — Excitement fills the classroom when Clovis Simons shows up at Sparks Christian Academy in south DeKalb County.
He’s like a rock star at the tiny, one-room school, where each week — year-round — he settles into a small chair and provides chess instruction for more than a dozen eager students.
Simons, 23, is an engineering student at Georgia State University’s Perimeter College and also a nationally-ranked chess player. He spends a couple of hours weekly teaching students at Sparks.
The majority of students attending Sparks Academy for summer enrichment and the standard school year have active Individual Education Plans they received from DeKalb County Public Schools before they left to become part of a smaller education environment.
Beverly Robinson, Sparks Academy lead teacher, says she has seen improvement in her students’ abilities to think critically and solve problems since Simons began his chess lessons. She also notes that chess has helped them socially. They have “learned to be gracious winners and losers,” for example, and they have increased their vocabulary.
“They didn’t have a clue about the names of the chess pieces,” Robinson said.
Simons is known as “Coach Chris” (a reference to his middle name) to 13-year-old Kelvinyanna Jones and other students who have taken a deep interest in chess. The students have even started to participate in Atlanta-area tournaments under Simons’ guidance.
“He’s a fun teacher,” Jones said. “He’s a good teacher. I want to keep on playing chess because it’s very smart.”
Initially, Simons didn’t realize the full impact that teaching chess could have on skills development.
“It can be a mentor,” he said.
For himself, Simons credits chess with improving his studies as a Perimeter College student.
Specifically, he has noticed improvement in his time management, interpersonal, organizational and problem-solving skills. Perhaps the biggest boost, Simons says, is that chess has dramatically reduced how long he needs to study because the game has helped him think more strategically about what, when and how he studies.
“I spend a lot less time sitting over my books ‘hoping’ to get the information I need.”
Dr. Taylor Shapero is Simons’ favorite engineering instructor.
“Clovis is a fun, funky, unique student,” she said. “I think he thinks differently from the average student. He thinks outside the box and regularly asks unexpected but good questions.”
Simons has been playing chess competitively for about three years now after challenging a fellow Perimeter student in the commons area of the Dunwoody Campus. Simons recalls losing miserably and setting a goal to get much better.
“He made several remarks about how terrible I was,” he recalled. “It was good, though. If that didn’t happen, I never would have gotten into chess seriously.”
Now, in addition to teaching at Sparks Academy and other DeKalb schools, Simons regularly speaks to leadership, business networking, civic and youth groups about the benefits of playing chess. He also serves a leadership role in the United States Chess Federation (USCF), through which he is a tournament director and ranked in the top 20 percent of chess players nationally.
Simons provides chess instruction in partnership with a local nonprofit organization called Unconditional Love for Children (ULC), which focuses on teaching students in kindergarten to 12th grade how to play chess competitively.
Barry Gray, a member of the Board of Visitors for Georgia State University’s Perimeter College, serves as ULC’s chess program coordinator and Simons’ mentor.
“It has been fascinating to watch Clovis develop into a fine chess player and inspiring mentor,” Gray said.
After Simons graduates from Perimeter College in December he plans to transfer and work toward a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering.
He also plans to continue spreading his passion for chess.
“I am hoping that even more children will acquire an interest in and excitement about chess.”