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Association of California School Administrators
Association of California School Administrators
Finding their place
Addressing educational equity and student engagement with esports
By Josh Lewis | March | April 2023
The Jurupa Unified School District has identified educational equity as a top priority in the effort to ensure that every student can succeed in school, in career and in life. Providing opportunities for all students to engage in school and feel that they belong is critical to meeting that goal. Research shows that students who do not participate in school-organized extracurricular activities have an increased risk of dropping out of high school. The growing popularity of esports creates an opportunity for schools to leverage adolescents’ interest in gaming to make school more relevant while reinforcing social-emotional skills and connecting students to career pathways.
Esports satisfy students’ need to belong by enabling a marginalized population to feel comfortable within a larger campus community where they have not been traditionally accepted. The program also is accessible to students with limited financial means as it is offered at no cost to families. This is especially important in JUSD where more than two-thirds of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals.
The goal of esports is to engage students who otherwise might not have found a place where they fit in. The program has proven to benefit students both academically and socially. Esports promotes academic success as players utilize a variety of skills, such as critical thinking, mathematics and statistics. Participants also must maintain a 2.0 grade point average. Currently, several hundred students are participating and that number is growing. An emphasis is placed on sportsmanship and teamwork as well as technical skill.
Data supports the positive effect esports has on students, both academically and socially. Of JUSD’s esports athletes: 64 percent improved grades from the previous semester after being involved in esports; 57 percent are on track or excelling academically in all subject areas; two-thirds attended 90 percent or more school days this year and are on track to graduate; and 83 percent had one or fewer behavior incidents in the 2021-22 school year.
Students say the program has made a strong positive impact on their grades and overall school experience, and outlook for the future. “Before it was hard for me to talk to people I didn’t know and that’s a really big part of school because a lot of my teachers have us pair up with people for assignments and projects,” said Carlos, 17. “With esports, I was able to get out of my shell and be able to talk to more people and that’s helped me academically. Now I can better communicate with my partners in projects.”
Vincent, 18, said esports is the only extracurricular activity in which he is involved. “It’s something at school I can be part of,” he said. That positive feeling is amplified at regular school tournaments and twice-yearly district-wide tournaments as well as an awards ceremony. Students have the opportunity to experience success as they win trophies and vie for titles. Awards recognize sportsmanship, leadership, support for others and perseverance.
JUSD’s esports program stands out for its inclusiveness and focus on important social and academic skills. No one is turned away, as long as they maintain their grades. Sanctioned by the California Interscholastic Federation in 2019, esports is unique in that it is available to everyone. It is an activity enjoyed by both general and special education students, those with physical disabilities and English Learners. It is also gender-inclusive. In addition, it is the only CIF sport available to students enrolled at the district’s continuation high school. It is open to middle school students as well.
The connection to a career pathway also sets JUSD’s esports program apart. Participants have shared that esports inspired them to pursue careers in game design or computer science. Vincent, for example, plans to attend a two-year college this fall, then transfer to a four-year university and will major in game design.
The Board of Education has shown consistent and direct support for the esports program. Two members of the JUSD Board of Education sit on the Technology and Facilities Committee, which shares input about esports expansion to the board for consideration. The most recent Local Control and Accountability Plan includes funding for both esports expansion and professional development for teachers to facilitate and to better understand how the new generation of players’ passions might be harnessed to make school more relevant for students.
Esports is a popular and growing program and funding is in place to continue that growth over the next several years. Because the field is so wide open, there are limitless opportunities for the future. Providing competitive esports teams in schools satisfies the growing desire to train and educate students on the skills emphasized in Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math and improves Career Technical Education and English Language Arts. Students who participate in esports develop relationship skills, demonstrate they can work as a team and gain technical and critical thinking skills to be successful in the workforce.
The goal of esports is to engage students who otherwise might not have found a place where they fit in. The program has proven to benefit students both academically and socially.
Esports also reaches a wide cross-section of students. While the majority are “gamers'' who enjoy being involved in hands-on play, others have found their place as “shoutcasters,” acting much like sports announcers for other sports. Other students have built websites for their school's team, edited in-game video clips, made movies for their school's television station and drawn animations and characters for promotional purposes. The accessibility, affordability and highly-engaging nature of esports ensures it will be around for many years to come.
Only 2 percent of high school athletes earn athletic scholarships, according to National College Athletic Association data. Additionally, only 2 percent of college athletes go on to play professional sports. (NCAA, 2014) Meanwhile, video game design is a fast-growing field and esports provide a viable path to college and career success. The popularity of esports has caught the attention of college admissions teams who work with student-athletes on academic enrollment. As a result, colleges provide an educational opportunity to groups of students who have been previously excluded from traditional academic or athletic scholarships (Rothwell & Shaffer, 2019).
As a CIF-sanctioned sport, esports can easily be replicated. JUSD started with one high school and then brought in additional high schools and middle schools. The program is accessible to all and is especially valuable as it combines a way to access academic and social-emotional skill-building with the benefits of participation in an extracurricular activity. Esports is also a larger, connected community, and partnerships can be formed to enhance a district program. For example, JUSD has partnered with the Riverside County of Education to offer online tournaments. Students who participate in RCOE tournaments are eligible to win college scholarships. The JUSD esports program serves as a model for how school districts can bring about positive social change by advising school district and educational leaders on how to develop a successful community that offers new opportunities based on students’ interests.
“As we continue our critical work in educational equity, our JUSD esports program stands as a shining example of how districts can make all aspects of the school experience available and accessible to every student,” stated Board of Education President Melissa Ragole. “Esports allows everyone to participate in a CIF sport, regardless of their physical abilities. The power that this program has to change lives is inspiring and indicative of the life-changing work happening in our district every day.”
National Collegiate Athletic Association (2014), NCAA Recruiting Facts. https://www.nfhs.org/media/886012/recruiting-fact-sheet-web.pdf
Rothwell & Shaffer, Esports in K–12 and post-secondary schools. Education Sciences, 2019, 9(2), 1–10.

Joshua Lewis is the Director of Secondary Education at Jurupa Unified School District.
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