How to engage at-risk students through esports

Involving students in esports gives them a 'why,' which is a powerful motivator in helping involve them in school each day

It is well documented that extracurricular activities boost academic success. In recent years, schools have tried to broaden the traditional extracurricular definition to appeal to a more diverse, and often disengaged, group of students who are at-risk of dropping out of high school.  Esports just might be the natural fit.

Lack of Engagement Leads to Hopelessness

Summer Jibril was a 16-year-old high school sophomore, and she was in a bad place.  Suffering from diagnosed depression and anxiety since her middle school years, she sat on the edge of her bed and contemplated her next move.

“I was in crisis,” Jibril said. “I literally couldn’t physically force myself to get up and get dressed for school.  My mind just kept repeating, ‘What’s the point?’”

That day would be Jibril’s twenty-fifth absence for the school year.  Like 20 percent of her peers across the United States, Jibril was considered chronically absent. According to the U.S. Department of Education, chronically absent students are defined as missing 15 or more days of school. Along with being seven times more likely to drop out of school than their peers, chronically absent students are more likely to experience poverty, have more health issues and have involvement in the criminal justice system.

“I just didn’t feel like I had any reason to go to school,” said Jibril.

Luckily for her, Jibril’s district, USD 266 in Maize, Kansas, had an alternative school for at-risk students that included a new after-school esports team and first-of-its kind elective credit esports class called Gaming Concepts.

“The minute I walked in, I knew things were going to be different,” said Jibril.  “All of a sudden, I had a ‘why’.”

Giving Students a ‘Why’

Esports as an extracurricular activity is growing exponentially in the United States and around the world. The High School Esports League is the largest league in the United States with over 3,400 schools.  In addition, HSEL has committed to investing heavily in education by partnering with the North America Scholastic Esports Federation and leaning on educators to create “purposeful play” for students through curriculum that focuses on STEM, college and career readiness, and social emotional learning.  

As the captain of her school’s esports team, Jibril made sure she showed up to school so she was eligible to go to after-school practice. The first year she was at Complete High School Maize, she missed three days of school. When she graduated in 2019, she had perfect attendance.

Jibril’s esports coach, Dr. Michael Russell, said these results were typical to esports programs. “The average attendance for students who were involved in our esports program that first year was 92 percent. The next year it was 96 percent. The students don’t want to miss.”

Meeting Students Where They Are

From improved developmental and academic skills to increased attendance, students who are involved in extracurricular activities generally have a more positive school experience.

“Offering esports as an activity option engaged a whole group of students we had been missing,” Clint Dayhuff, Esports Director for Wichita Public School District 259 in Wichita, Kansas, said. “This was about meeting kids where they were at instead of where we thought they should be.  What we found were a whole bunch of eager kids waiting on us to flip the switch.”

USD 259 piloted their esports program in four of their nine high schools during the 2020-2021 school year. Boasting a diverse student body of over 47,000 students, WPS students come from over 100 different countries and speak 104 languages.  With over 78 percent of students considered economically disadvantaged, esports provided an opportunity to engage with students as well as introduce them to a variety of STEM skills valuable for future employment. The program met with such success, they will offer it in all nine high schools and 13 middle schools during the 2021-2022 school year. 

“This year’s achievements have already caught the eye of colleges who have reached out to recruit and provide scholarships,” Kyle Schoenhofer, head coach of Wichita Southeast Esports, said. “Many students who would otherwise not be involved in high school sports or extracurricular activities are considering college as a real option for them. Approximately 80 percent of our students who are involved in esports have never been involved in school activities.”

One of the season highlights for another USD 259 school, Wichita West, was beating the U.S. Navy esports team in a scrimmage.

“When people ask me why Wichita Public Schools offers esports, I like to tell them about the Navy scrimmage,” Dayhuff said. “The problem solving, digital literacy, communication and collaboration skills that were on display during that match are a perfect example of the project-based application approach that all schools, and maybe more importantly, employers, are searching for.”

It’s Not Game Over

Schools are not the only organizations finding success using esports to engage at-risk youth. As nearly 83 percent of incarcerated persons in the United States are also high school dropouts, getting students a high school diploma is of critical importance.

Lindy Meiser, Director of eSports Texoma, in Pottsboro, Texas, is dedicated to building the confidence and skills of troubled youth through esports. A graduate of the prestigious NASEF Scholastic Fellow program, Meiser’s capstone project was building a curriculum that could be used with incarcerated students.

Meiser uses the popular Microsoft game Minecraft as part of a lesson plan that has 100-200 students building a portion of a Rube Goldberg machine.  Students work together to each build their part of the machine and are often astounded how much they can accomplish by working together.

“The relationships that the students build when participating in esports is not just peer-to-peer,” Meiser said. “Esports also gives the detention facility staff a way to positively connect with kids. I want kids to know that, ‘Yes, you made a mistake, but it’s recoverable.’”

“It’s not game over,” Meiser said. “Just like in an esports game, every round can be a fresh start.”

Clint Dayhuff moderates the Wichita West High School vs. U.S. Navy exhibition esports match.  Wichita West defeated Navy 13-5. Photo courtesy USD 259 Wichita Public Schools

Summer Jibril explains the college and career skills she learns from esports to the Kansas Commissioner of Education Randy Watson.  Jibril’s high school, Complete High School Maize, was chosen as a showcase school for the Kansas Department of Education annual convention. Photo courtesy Dr. Michael Russell

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