CEI gives NYC students place to connect, dream big through esports

The Center for Educational Innovation is hosting an NBA2K tournament on Giving Tuesday that offers a unique opportunity for learning and connecting through esports
By: | November 13, 2019

From the moment you walk through the doors of the vibrant OS-NYC space in New York’s Bowery District, you get the feeling …

This is the future.

Slick graffiti murals serve as a backdrop for an alluring array of computer monitors, high-end chairs, couches and accoutrements that comprise this gamers’ paradise. The venue is just a stone’s throw from the neighborhoods where many youngsters live, but in some ways it could be miles away. Opportunities and hope and places like these sometimes can be tough to find for students who are in low-resourced communities.

But The Center for Educational Innovation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit education organization and leader in advancing meaningful reforms in public education, exists to change that. The CEI serves some 326 schools and 146,000 kids in the New York City area by helping to transform schools and boost student enrichment through its many initiatives. One of its programs – esports – is showing and teaching children that there is a pipeline to higher education and a future.

CEI serves those students by providing some unique opportunities in the community to ensure that happens.

On Dec. 3, the doors from OS-NYC will swing open for a group of local students to play in the “Battle of the Boroughs,” a 2 v 2 NBA2K tournament and fundraising event. From 4 p.m.-9 p.m., they will experience the grandeur of this incredible space. They also will get the chance to dream, to see beyond the walls at OS-NYC.

The tournament is one of a series of esports events CEI hosts throughout the year. This one, in partnership with HyperX, will truly be a special night – part of Giving Tuesday, the international day of giving that kicks off the holiday season.

District Administration recently talked with Jadd Schmeltzer, the Center’s Director of Esports. Schmeltzer, a Cornell grad, entrepreneur and former minor-league baseball player, created the NBA2K Academy for CEI. His says his esports program is more than just gaming.

“It is a platform for all students to acquire the life skills, collaboration, and problem-solving skills needed to thrive in school and in life,” he says, “Student gaming teams learn marketing, social media, IT support, event-planning, and other components which are useful skills as they go out in the world.”

Schmeltzer discussed his Center’s impact, along with the NBA2K event it is hosting:

What is CEI and what is its overarching mission?
Our mission is to work directly with teachers, school leaders, students and the community to create high performing schools in low resourced communities to prepare students to compete in the 21st century. CEI supports public schools and public charter schools with student centered innovation, customized support and life changing enrichment programs for at risk students.

How and why did you get involved in esports and what got you attracted to this?

I got involved with esports because It gave me an opportunity to work with students and sports in unique way. I think the opportunity to teach the game of basketball through video games is an underutilized tool, and we are showing through our program that kids want to learn. Just because some of our kids don’t physically play the sport doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have an opportunity to learn about the game. This opportunity to impact even more kids is why I designed this program.

Why is CEI is hosting the NBA2K Battle of the Boroughs? Where did you get the idea to do this?

The idea is just a combination of my background in sports and what I would have wanted if I were a student right now. I am just looking at ways to innovate in a space that is extremely exciting. It is the culmination event for this semester’s Esports program. The “Battle of the Boroughs” is an incredible opportunity to connect students from different schools who have similar interest in basketball and NBA2K for a night of gaming. I wanted to put together a high-profile event for our students to start to showcase some of the talent that exists in our schools to members of the NBA2K community. This is a great opportunity to have our students and families interact with players from the NBA2K League to talk about the experiences they have had being in the league and the evolution of the competitive gaming space.

CEI support various endeavors, inside and outside the classroom. What is it about esports that makes it so attractive to schools and students?
Esports is a unique opportunity to get students to engage with the school and build a new community of students with similar interests. I have seen students come into our session who are in the same grade and have never talked to each other previously, until they played NBA2K together and saw they shared some similar passions for the game and basketball.

How is this different from (or similar to) other events CEI hosts?

This is event is similar to other events CEI hosts in that, at its core, it is about increasing student engagement and opportunity, but the only difference with this event is that we are using video games as an outlet to connect students instead of arts, music or theater. We are really excited about the opportunity to connect students and other families together through a night of gaming.

Students and families take in a CEI esports event. Photo courtesy of CEI

The venue, OS NYC is pretty amazing. What is the reaction of kids (or what will be the reaction of kids) when they walk through the doors? What makes OS NYC so special?
Seeing the kids’ reaction really is one of the highlights of what I do. We brought about 200 students and families out to the NBA2K studios last summer and everyone was blown away that this specific venue was dedicated solely to competitive video gaming. We took over the arena and had the place rocking!

Besides the student gamers, who are the others attending or promoting the event?
Helping me with the promotion of the event is Justin Jacobson from the Jacobson Firm. He is assisting us in bringing out influencers from the entertainment, sports, and esports industry. We will be having some special guest like Julian Rodriguez, an up-and-coming boxer who will be fighting at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 14th, and a special guest that is considered one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History. It will be a fun night at OS-NYC!

How rewarding is it to be able to reach kids with these sorts of events?
It’s incredible! Esports are blowing up around the country, with the list of schools growing by the day. But nobody is providing secondary school students with the opportunities that we are doing here in NYC from access to players, coaches and even commissioners of the league.

Chris Burt is the Editor of Esports for LRP Media Group and the Chair for the Academic Esports Conference & Expo October 19-21, 2020, in Chicago.

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