‘Game On’ as esports becomes pivotal for Florida magnet school

From grant to launch, educators Jane Whitaker and Laurie Boyer present how competitive gaming is inspiring dreams at Fort Pierce Westwood Academy.
Jane Whitaker
Laurie Boyer

During a ribbon cutting ceremony in January, Fort Pierce Westwood Academy in St. Lucie County, Florida, unveiled a Learning Commons with an esports lab.

Among the new gear showcased in part of this converted media center were 14 top-of-the-line MSI Trident X computers and a slew of HyperX peripherals dedicated to an esports program, the first of its kind in the school district. It was an emotional moment for students, parents and educators, who beamed at seeing the space uncovered for the first time. They saw more than just workstations, new keyboards and chairs. They saw hope. And a future.

Jane Whitaker and Laurie Boyer, educators from the Office of Teaching and Learning who helped create this lab with help from a Magnet School Assistance Program grant, say this was a game-changing moment for the district and for students who otherwise would have never had this kind of opportunity. In October, they will be sharing their story with attendees at the Academic Esports Conference & Expo in their session Game On! Building a Quality Academic Esports Program from the Ground Up.

For St. Lucie Public Schools, it is quite a story.

According to the U.S. News & World Report Best High Schools in 2020, Westwood High ranked 446th of 598 schools in Florida. Only 8% of its students passed at least one AP exam. Its College Readiness Index score, which measures math and reading proficiency from state-required tests and internationally available exams, was 16.2 out of 100.

Some 70% of students at the school are economically disadvantaged. And yet, 92 percent of them graduate, exceeding the national rate.

So when that ribbon fell to the floor at the new STEAM-infused magnet, it ushered in a wave of promise for school leaders and parents committed to changing the dynamic.

“It was just so awesome to see the excitement in the kids, the excitement in the parents, and the openness to learn about it,” Boyer said. “Parents were saying, ‘I want my kid to learn more about scholastic esports and possible careers that they can choose.’ ”

Change through esports

The MSAP grant acquired in 2017 (part of a larger $12.5 million award) allowed St. Lucie County to pour $2.7 million into magnet programs at three schools, including the Fort Pierce Westwood Academy, which opened in August 2019 and where the esports program got started.

During that summer, Whitaker and Boyer explored several options. But it was the conversations they had with Gerald Solomon, founder of the North America Scholastic Esports Federation (NASEF), and Laylah Bulman, executive director of the Florida Scholastic Esports League, that helped them form a plan. NASEF showed them that the benefits of implementing esports reached far beyond gaming and could include educational components for students if done correctly.

“NASEF brought their team from California and shared with students the academic piece of it,” Whitaker said. “They rolled out what the purpose behind the Florida Scholastic Esports League was – that academics is first. It’s not gaming to game. It’s gaming to give you a future. That made a tremendous impact on the students.”

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It also helped get buy-in from district leaders and the community.

“Parents didn’t necessarily know much about esports beyond their kid gaming at home,” Boyer said. “We were able to share with them the esports ecosystem so they could understand that gaming is the core, but there is so much more all around it – the opportunities for careers and various industries. That was a huge help for us.”

At the Academic Esports Conference, Whitaker and Boyer plan to talk about their experiences with building, designing and implementing that new academic-centered esports program. They’ll also share their insight into being one of the first clubs to join the Florida Scholastic Esports League. From design of the lab to recruitment and marketing opportunities to helping bring community awareness, the session will serve to lay a foundation for learning how to begin an esports program.

From the ground up.

Building it out, building it up

At Fort Pierce Westwood Academy, or WEST Prep, there were myriad considerations Boyer and Whitaker undertook before launching esports. They shared five of those with District Administration they say can be applied to other schools:

  • IT first: Boyer says computer stations operating on a network at home look far different than those in a school district. There are cybersecurity and firewall issues that must be factored in. The importance of those considerations were paramount, says Whitaker. “Other districts that we talked to just kind of jumped in and tried to start making things happen and then backed up trying to fit it in. They had to take about 10 steps back because they hadn’t thought about all the issues as far as IT, security, bandwidth and all of the internet issues that might come up.”
  • Buy in: Boyer says, “Before you even try to throw it out there to the community, you really need to have a good collaborative working relationship with those within your own district in order to understand each other’s perspective and the rationale behind why you want to have esports.”
  • The right equipment: “You have to get what the kids want,” Boyer says. “They want flashy. They want the colors … modems and keyboards lighting up. We got gaming desks and gaming chairs for each station.”
  • The right games: The magnet school plays Rocket League and League of Legends on its PCs, with Super Smash Bros. offered on consoles. Boyer says there are several factors that schools should take in selecting games. “You have to make sure it’s age appropriate. Our league chose not to take part in certain games because of the sensitivity of some things that have occurred on school campuses here in the state of Florida.”
  • Including academics: “The scholastic component sealed the deal for us,” Whitaker says of the meeting with NASEF representatives. “It’s a huge selling point when you think about the next phase for these kids, when a lot of them wouldn’t have access to this kind of equipment or experiences otherwise.”

The future at WEST Prep

Because WEST Prep leaders got buy-in early, they haven’t had the kind of a pushback other districts have had regarding games or security.

“We’ve been very fortunate,” Whitaker says.

That’s led to preparing for life beyond the games and enriching the magnet offerings through curriculum.

Whitaker says the school is looking to redesign some of its CTE courses to include gaming components and gaming applications and be a pathway for seamless course progressions, especially for students who are considering career options around esports. An example might be to take a computer science course and infuse it with English Language Arts or marketing. They are even looking beyond the current grant cycle and hoping to get another one that helps provide a true pipeline through esports from middle school through high school.

“We’re looking to bring that all the way down to 7th and 8th grades, looking at cybersecurity, event planning, shoutcasting, the communication arts piece of it,” Whitaker says.

The one magic component of all the MSAP grant is inclusion. Minority students comprise 82 percent of the population at Fort Pierce Westwood High School.

“It is diverse, and that is the point of having the program here,” Boyer says. “The MSAP program is about making innovative programs available to all students and balancing out the diversity within that school. We have kids of every ethnicity taking part. Two of the four coaches we have are women. It breaks the thought, ‘Do girls actually game?’ Absolutely they do!

Even for schools who don’t get large grants, she says esports can be implemented at any school.

“It can look absolutely different in every district, on every campus and that’s OK,” Boyers says. “You don’t have to start off with a gaming lab and expensive devices. It could work with what you currently have. For a relatively cheap price, you could get Nintendo switches on your campus. Right there, you’ve started excitement. If schools just jump in, the kids will help guide them and support them.”

Chris Burt is the Esports Editor for District Administration and University Business magazines and is the Program Chair for the Academic Esports Conference and Expo. He can be reached at cburt@lrp.com.

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