California Middle School is leveling up with a new after-school program.
Building administrators are piloting a new esports club in hopes of getting more students involved, along with giving them an outlet to make new connections. Although many middle school students are too young to participate in traditional sports, they can now battle against classmates in Nintendo Switch games after school in the middle school media center.
California Middle School Principal Derek Scroggins said he and Kenny Goans, middle school assistant principal, brainstormed ways to get more students involved in extracurricular activities.
"We kind of looked at the rosters the last couple years of our athletes, and it seemed like a lot of our athletes are two- or three-sport athletes, and so it's the same kids over and over and it excludes all fifth- and sixth-graders because you can't play (Missouri State High School Activities Association) sports, or school sports, until seventh grade," Scroggins said. "And so we wanted to just be able to get some involvement of those fifth- and sixth-graders, as well as some other kids that sports may just not be their thing."
Co-Mo Connect, a local internet service provider operated by Co-Mo Electric Cooperative, previously reached out to Jeff West, California High School principal, about starting a high school esports team. While there wasn't enough interest from staff at the high school to sponsor a club, as West told the California R-I Board of Education in December, Scroggins felt it was worth a try in his building.
Scroggins contacted Co-Mo Connect to get the club set up. Initially, Scroggins and Patrick Wood, public relations and communications representative for Co-Mo Connect, discussed the possibility of gaming on consoles, such as the Nintendo Switch, instead of personal computers. The consoles limit access to inappropriate content and can be used without an internet connection.
After settling on the Switch, Scroggins said Co-Mo Connect donated four Nintendo Switch consoles, 16 Switch controllers, a television and cart, four copies of Mario Kart, four copies of Super Smash Brothers, and four copies of Splatoon 3 by "the end of the week." Wood said the same consoles and games can also be used at the high school level with PlayVS, a group the National Federation of State High School Associations has partnered with to facilitate esports competitions between high schools.
"Patrick Wood, the guy we've worked with over there, has been phenomenal in helping us get this up and running," Scroggins said.
Wood said California R-I was the first school district to partner with Co-Mo Connect to start an esports program. He said Morgan County R-I (Stover) and Otterville R-VI are other area districts that have independently added esports. Co-Mo Connect is "in the process of reaching out to other area schools to help them with their esports programs," he said.
The pilot club first met Jan. 17. The grades meet on separate days -- Mondays and Wednesdays for fifth- and sixth-graders, and Tuesdays and Thursdays for seventh- and eighth-graders -- due to demand.
"We only go for an hour, we don't want to burn them out with it," Scroggins said. "Just basically, right now it's establishing proof of concept, that the kids are interested, and giving them a place to have some friends playing some games."
Scroggins said the pilot is running from January to late February due to a gap between winter and spring sports at the middle school level. If students demonstrate enough interest in the program, he said it could be offered year round, especially if faculty express interest in volunteering to keep it running.
The esports club has also benefited Scroggins by providing him an outlet for connecting with the students.
"If there's an open spot I'll jump in and play with them," he said. "It's nice to just interact with the kids in that type of setting. You can kind of see a different side of them, they can see a different side of you."
The feedback has already been positive, Scroggins said.
"Kids have talked about how there was one of the fifth-grade boys that I was playing with the other day. He made a comment about how much more fun it is to play with actual people instead of just at home by himself," he said. "That's really the reason we're doing it, because we want them to be able to have a social atmosphere where they can do something they enjoy."
"The social and emotional well-being of our students is a top priority of ours, and so this is a way where we're able to get them in that type of environment with other people who like the same type of things," Scroggins added. "Anytime you can get kids around other kids who enjoy the same stuff, it usually results in good things."
In addition to the social aspect, Scroggins said tying fun activities -- such as being able to participate in esports -- to classroom performance can help motivate students. Students can only participate in esports if they don't need after-school academic help -- a program offering tutoring and help for students who might have fallen behind. The program meets at the same time as esports, so they would conflict.
"When they're in those types of environments at a school activity, it also gets them to buy into school even more," he said. "And if being in esports is something that you really like and that's the thing you're interested in, by tying it to 'OK, now we got to make sure we're taking care of our homework and grades as well,' it's just one more thing to help motivate them."
Temwa Nkosi, an eighth-grade esports participant, said she enjoys the program and felt it was well organized. She hopes the activity can be expanded to the high school.
"It would definitely reduce a lot of stress because the high school's pretty scary, to me at least, or intimidating, I guess," she said.
Scroggins said students can get involved in esports without signing up, as long as they don't need academic help and can get a ride home at 4:10 p.m.