Cameron Smith was about to lose his knight.
“Please don’t do it! Don’t do it, Kian,” the boy pleaded, sighing with relief after tutor Kian Alavi changed his mind about taking the piece.
Cameron, a fifth-grader at Claire Lilienthal Alternative School, had been playing chess for less than five weeks, but after a few more moves he was able to play Alavi to a draw.
“He’s advancing quickly,” Alavi said.
Alavi, 34, co-founded a program called the Vision Academy, which operates after-school centers in the Mission, Hayes Valley and the Bayview. The program, which began last summer and now serves 75 children, combines homework help, educational technology and chess — using the game to teach reasoning and focus.
“Before you move, you gotta think every time,” Cameron said.
Cameron is one of about 15 children in kindergarten through sixth grade who attend Vision Academy at Calvary Hill Community Church, a predominantly black congregation housed in a former warehouse on an industrial strip in the Bayview.
“It’s a calming game; it takes a lot of discipline and restraint,” said Hollis Pierce, the church’s director of community partnerships, who brought Vision Academy to Calvary Hill last summer after learning that the secular nonprofit was looking for a space.
Pierce, an education consultant and former teacher, also is training tutors and seeking grant funding that would allow for more staff at the Bayview site.
Although the program costs $65 a week, some children’s tuition is paid by the San Francisco Children’s Council. At the Bayview site, Calvary Hill subsidizes attendance for children whose families cannot afford to pay for the after-school program. Alavi said no child would be turned away for lack of funds.
“No child is denied — that’s our philosophy,” he said.
Alavi, who left a career in finance and real estate hoping to make a difference in the community, said that chess, which students get to play every afternoon as a reward for completing their homework, was the key component to the Vision Academy.
“There’s so many benefits to chess,” he said. “You have to win graciously and lose graciously. Kids who become involved in chess become better students.”
Cameron put it more succinctly.
“It helps you get smarter,” he said.