Carl Caruso's Gambit: Nurturing Good Decision Makers Through Early Childhood Education - And Games of Chess

Categories: Donors, EMPOWERMENT AND SUCCESS: Education, Education,

Retiree Carl Caruso usually keeps his philanthropy on the down-low, but he’s realized that to scale up, he has to speak up. After all, it was reporting about Orlando hotelier Harris Rosen’s experiment in the underserved Tangelo Park community that inspired Caruso to collaborate with the Community Foundation of Sarasota County to create his Bridges to Success project for less advantaged children in Sarasota. He hopes other local donors will replicate the model.

“Frederick Douglass once said, ‘It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men,’” says Caruso. “I believe in early intervention.”

Bridges to Success subsidizes daycare for a dozen 2- to 5-year-olds with the goal of making a college education not just possible but inevitable. Research indicates that quality childcare has long-lasting benefits, and the earlier the start, the greater the impact. “The younger age group is very impressionable,” says Caruso. “These early years are all about the learning process, without the stigma of school testing.” Yet parents, especially single parents with insecure employment, often struggle to find reliable, affordable, and excellent childcare.

With help from the Early Learning Coalition of Sarasota County, Caruso identified two top-notch home day-care providers, Ms. Margline and Ms. Bess, each supervising six neighborhood kids, the limit under state regulations. Then Caruso made them a promise: Let’s start with two-year-olds, whomever you choose to enroll, and when they head off to kindergarten, I’ll seed a college or trade-school fund for each of them. Partnering with Early Learning, I’ll cover their weekly fees, so the vicissitudes of family finances will never jeopardize the stability and consistency of their preschool routine. If you need supplies and equipment, like markers or a new table, I may be able to help with that, too.

Bridges to Success launched in early 2016 and this year will “graduate” its first cohort with 529 college savings plans. Each child who starts the program as a two-year-old enters kindergarten with about $6,000 set aside for college. Parents own the account, with encouragement to continue contributing whenever possible. Caruso plans to remain connected through holiday greetings and an annual picnic. He’s also encouraging “alums” to stay in touch with each other and to network through organizations like the Boys and Girls Clubs, Visible Men Academy, and Girls, Inc. Transcending your circumstances seems less of a big deal if you do it in a posse.

One of the first in his extended Italian-American family to attend college, Caruso recalls tremendous attention and support from his highly motivated public school teachers in Port Jefferson, NY, on the north shore of Long Island. Many of his high school instructors had attended college on the GI Bill after WWII, part of a huge first-generation wave. These days, however, students from challenged backgrounds may excel and earn scholarships, but once they reach college campuses and mingle with the privileged, they often flounder and drop out, Caruso says, succumbing to imposter syndrome. “They feel like they don’t deserve a postsecondary education, that they don’t belong. I had these feelings my first year as an engineering student at the University of Florida.”

The idea behind Bridges to Success is to create a positive sense of entitlement. Caruso imagines this exchange:

You going to college?

Why wouldn’t I go to college!

“I think it’s important for a young person to have a sense that, Yes, I can achieve. There is no ceiling for me.

A free ride through day care for 3½ years costs about $25,000 per child, Caruso estimates. Even with help from Early Learning, the price tag makes it difficult to grow the program beyond its present scope unless other donors join in.

Rick Caruso on left and chess instructor Rick Knowlton on the right with chess students at A New Beginning Early Child Care. Photo by Nancy Guth.

Opening Moves—The Chess Piece

A 2017 60 Minutes profile of an unlikely chess program in the Bible Belt spurred Caruso to consider a different kind of expansion. In Mississippi, an anonymous benefactor paid for Dr. Jeff Burlington, a Memphis chess teacher, to visit—and then live in—rural Franklin County (two stop lights, one elementary school). Now hundreds of “hillbilly” kids are playing chess, competing in tournaments, and planning for college.

“It was clear to me what he was teaching was not necessarily a game but how to think,” says Caruso.

Caruso had played chess as a high schooler, so he understood the principles of the game. The 60 Minutes segment dovetailed with a book he was reading, The Undoing Project, about the work of Hebrew University psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. “Amos is quoted as saying that, when you make a decision, you really need to appreciate whether you’re going to regret it or not. I think that falls in line with playing chess. When you move that piece, in some ways it’s a gamble. But in some ways, it’s a conscious decision. For young people to get that message subliminally gives them an excellent heads-up on what’s to come.” Discipline, patience, decision making—chess teaches the whole package wrapped up as fun.

Luckily, Caruso didn’t have to look far for his chess meister. A collector and author of A World of Chess: Its Development and Variations through Centuries and Civilizations, Rick Knowlton has a reputation as the go-to guy for youth chess around Sarasota. A founding member of Sarasota Scholastic Chess (suncoastchess.org), he helps mount three K-12 tournaments a year and has taught chess in several afterschool programs.

What if you start even younger? Caruso suggested.

Using his early-learning connections, Caruso has arranged with two private daycare facilities, Renaissance and A New Beginning, for Knowlton to instruct the 3- to 5-year-olds. Once a week, Knowlton shows up with his boards, teaches a simple lesson, and invites whoever is interested to play or watch.

Usually 15 or so wiggly bodies gather round. “I just meet the kids, and see what I can give them,” says soft-spoken Knowlton. As he’s moving pieces, he provides a running commentary about what he’s doing and why. “A lot of these kids, they don’t even know what a game is, per se. They don’t know about taking turns; they don’t know about rules, where you can do certain things and not other things. So I’m teaching them the basics of interacting in a formal way.”

As an observer, Caruso says he sees great value in instilling patience. “You’ve got to wait for your turn. You have to analyze what you’re looking at, whether it’s a pawn you’re moving or a knight. This must help in the development of a child.” But neither he nor Knowlton makes grandiose claims about the long-term influence of kiddie chess. (Although Knowlton rarely hears from children who have aged out of daycare, parents passed along this story: Their son used his graduation gift—a chess set, of course—to teach his older brother. Now they play, and the younger son wins.)

Still, Caruso is so convinced of chess’s salubrious influence on decision making that he’s enlisted Knowlton to foster chess at another of his favorite nonprofits, the Salvation Army. On Sundays, visiting day, Knowlton shows up at a Salvation Army recovery program for folks in rehab. Sometimes men have no visitors—but they can play chess, with Knowlton offering over-the-shoulder coaching. The resident expert honed his game in prison, and Knowlton gives him good competition. “It’s a relief to work with adults,” Knowlton says with a laugh.

Chess offers no moral compass, but it does give a workout in reasoning and forethinking. For preschoolers or recovering addicts, “It may or may not make a difference,” says Caruso. “It’s like a shotgun approach. It has the potential of making a difference. And I think that’s the best that any of us can do—offer the opportunity.”

Note: This article originally appeared in the February 2020 edition of Scene Magazine, written by Sylvia Whitman and photographed by Nancy Guth.