Maria Walker and

Marciene Mattleman

are, respectively, executive director and president of After School Activities Partnerships

At the end of a winding maze of corridors and detention cells, about a dozen kids in loose-fitting scrubs sat silently at tables, heads bowed in concentration. They were participating in a tournament with the Youth Study Center's chess club, sponsored by ASAP/After School Activities Partnerships.

The chess club is unique among the 227 that ASAP has established citywide, because it offers an opportunity for juvenile offenders to benefit from the game.

The stakes were high. One pair of players, M.D. and F.M., were recurring opponents looking to settle their rivalry over the chess board. "And this . . . is checkmate," M.D. said as he made his move toward victory. "King [M.D.] reigns supreme once again."

(Youth Study Center students are being identified only by their initials to maintain their anonymity.)

ASAP's focus is after-school, where the need for structured activities in Philadelphia is great, with an estimated 45,000 children left unsupervised for 20 to 25 hours a week. The most dangerous time of day for children is between 3 and 6 p.m.

These unsupervised young people are much more likely to be the victims of violence, and they are at a higher risk of abusing alcohol, tobacco and drugs; becoming pregnant at a young age; and contracting sexually transmitted diseases. And lack of after-school activity could be contributing to the increasing number of overweight children.

Research shows that after-school programs deter negative behaviors while improving achievement and attendance. Only 18 percent of Philadelphia residents older than 25 have a bachelor's degree, so keeping kids in school and improving their performance are crucial goals.

Over the last six years, ASAP has served more than 15,000 children with a variety of clubs, including chess, debate, Scrabble, dance, drama, financial literacy and yoga. These activities foster discipline, skills, teamwork, respect for rules, improved relationships with peers and adults, and winning and losing with grace.

The Chess Challenge is ASAP's centerpiece initiative, with more than 3,500 kids playing in schools, libraries, recreation and community centers, shelters, and the Youth Study Center.

Since its introduction in 2006, chess has been one of the most popular programs at the Youth Study Center, according to Cindy Simkins-Hopson, director of the center's after-school programs.

"I can't tell you how incredible it is to see these kids, coming off the corners, so quiet and into their games," Simkins-Hopson said. "It's mind-blowing."

Studies show that chess teaches strategic thinking. School administrators say young chess players are more likely to see the consequences of their actions and avoid risky behaviors.

More than that, ASAP is creating a chess community among children who participate in weekly clubs and matches. The competitive arm of the Youth Chess Challenge, the Chess League, is the largest youth league in the Philadelphia School District.

ASAP also is making the connection between after-school activities and higher education, holding events at colleges and universities - and giving many students their first experience on a college campus. Traveling beyond their schools and outside their neighborhoods gives them an identity beyond their sometimes-negative environments and provides a chance to interact with other like-minded kids.

At the Youth Study Center, chess is more than just an activity. After getting acknowledgment for winning, M.D. extended his hand across the board to congratulate his opponent on a game well-played. In the spirit of sportsmanship, M.D. and F.M. would share the championship prize.

The lessons hadn't been lost on the reigning chess champion, M.D., who smiled and said, "With chess, those pieces are your family, and there's no way you're ever going to get ahead without seeing the big picture."

Recent reports that Philadelphia has the highest crime and poverty rates of the nation's 10 largest cities provide a strong impetus for improving the lives of children. ASAP's after-school programs offer kids a positive alternative to negative behaviors. As our slogan says, what happens after graduation starts with what happens after school.

Marciene Mattleman is also the education reporter for KYW Newsradio. For more information, see www.phillyasap.org.