Tulare Union takes varsity sports to the digital level

Tulare Union students build competitive robots, create innovative artificial intelligence and are now competing in competitive online gaming as a varsity sport in after school program

TULARE – For parents who thought video games would never be more than a distraction, as it turns out they could earn students a varsity letter or even a scholarship.

This year students at Tulare Union are able to participate in the first year of esports – electronic sports –  as a California Interscholastic Federation or CIF sport. Students are now able to compete in online gaming against other high schools with jerseys as a team. Esports is becoming increasingly more popular throughout schools and has become a sport in which students can receive a varsity letter. Tulare Union’s esports program is run through their after school program.

“There’s been a large push for professional gamers. You know, what our parents always told us, you’re never gonna make any money out of playing those video games. Well, now, CIF has said that esports is an academic letter,” Nathan Ortiz, area program manager for ProYouth said.

Eric York is a science teacher at Tulare Union High School who runs a STEM, Robotics and esports after school program for students Monday-Wednesday in his classroom. Students are able to choose whichever area of the three they feel like spending time on that day. Esports is competitive video gaming and has been a big hit with students. It is a new addition to the course as of last year bringing many students in, so York is working on the best way to give all his efforts to each area.  

Being that the esports program was new last year, York said the group simply joined a high school esports league, only it wasn’t school sanctioned. This year it will be fully run under CIF, making York head coach. He said he will have one varsity team for each game with as many junior varsity teams as he needs. CIF is having teams compete in Super Smash Brothers, a five-versus-five brawl on the Nintendo Switch, League of Legends, a five-versus-five on a computer and Rocket League, a three-versus-three on any platform. 

The team is currently in pre-season and York said they will compete in practice tournaments for now until the regular season begins in the spring. Most players will compete from York’s classroom, but he said some may opt to play from their own personal gaming systems at home. The program also hopes to host a local tournament for Tulare Union students. York said students will play a Super Smash Brothers tournament outside on a projector.

“I definitely see a level of passion in them for STEM and robotics related fields and especially for esports,” York said. “A lot of times [the students] will bring their friends, they hang out in [my classroom]. It’s a low stress environment, a way that they can decompress from the school day, but they’re still engaged in academic aspects.”

Esports has become increasingly more popular. Mission Oak High School also offers an esports program. Ortiz said the students don’t just sit and play video games, but they analyze film of other players and how they play each game, just like any other sport. Last year, Ortiz said there was a student in Visalia who got a scholarship to a PAC 12 school in esports. 

Robotics and STEM

Each year York has a group of kids focus on a new project that is determined through ideas from himself or brainstorming with the students. This year he plans to have his robotics students build robots to compete in a two-on-two indoor soccer game. York will provide students with limitations, or guidelines, and the rest is up to the student. Last year, his students created battle bots to fight against each other until there was a winner. Additionally, this year he plans to have his students create a robotic hand, with a glove to control it. 

York said last year his students built a robot that could solve a rubix cube. The year before he had a group of students compete in the Samsung Solve for Tomorrow contest for a device that could alert a driver when it detected a stop sign or stop light. The group made it to the top 10 national finalists and won $80,000 for their program. The program has a 3D printer, and a laser cutter as well as gaming computers and a Nintendo Switch for the esports portion. 

“He’s just very passionate about [his program] and he gets the kids,” Isamar Hernandez, XL program manager for Tulare Union said. 

Other afterschool programs

Union also offers classes like powerlifting, drivers education, a board game program, weight lifting, tutoring and they will soon be bringing back a cooking class which Hernandez said many students are interested in. Mission Oak offers similar programs, from Dungeons and Dragons, to anime, the art of gaming, college and career assistance, circuit design, tutoring as well as others. Tulare Western also offers similar classes and  theater, world language and a baking class called muffin mania. 

Accelerated Charter High School (ACHS) also provides their students with great opportunities according to Dana Shook, ACHS ProYouth site director. In addition to driver’s education, ACHS provides a program for students to become certificated to operate a forklift. They additionally offer an auto shop and new this year a welding class for students to learn the basics. ACHS also hosts an Ag club as well as weight training. Shook hopes to start a sewing class in the future as well. 

All schools provide tutoring throughout the year, and usually after first semester grades have been completed, credit recovery classes begin.  These after school programs provide stability for some students.

“We had our students ask us if we could run the program in the summer…mainly because they wanted somewhere to go, they didn’t want to just sit at home,” Ortiz said. “They had somewhere to go and be on their computer, and not be at home. A safe space.”


ProYouth is the program that works with schools to have the after school programs and they help with the funding process. ProYouth has programs throughout all levels of education starting from transitional kindergarten all the way through high school. The program runs all 180 days school is in session and depending on the school, some portions of the program can also be held during school breaks. Marie Pinto, PorYouth chief executive officer, said there was an instance most recently  where some students asked to have the program during summer vacation. 

“Even though summer school was over, our full time staff went to site [and made it available to students],” Pinto said. “It’s important that they have a safe space, and if it means that we’re going to be there during summer, during winter break, during Thanksgiving or whatever, that’s what we want to do.”

Each school varies in how long and how often the classes change at the high school level. If the school sees a lack of interest, the class will be eliminated but quite the opposite can happen as well, a growing interest could  build or create a program.

According to Pinto, ProYouth is a co-partner with each school. The local education agency, which would be each individual school or a county office of education, partners with ProYouth to apply for funding through the state, and ProYouth then provides the programs for each school. 

Pro Youth is in a total of nine districts and 52 sites with about 5,000 total students participating this year in California. The transitional kindergarten through sixth grade portion’s program is called HEART, the middle school students, six-eighth grader program is called EDGE and the high school portion is called XL. The HEART program is structured more intensely for the younger students where the EDGE program is slightly transitional for those students moving up to high school when they will have more freedom.

Pinto said with the little ones  in the HEART program, they usually always give them 30 minutes of physical activity followed by a specific curriculum rotating between two of the four pathways they follow including, computer science, ag science, health science and art. Heart kids do not spend more than eight weeks on one specific pathway. 

For students from the smallest to the biggest, they all receive a healthy snack provided by different sources depending on the school. Pinto said a lot of times they do what is called “table talk” which provides the opportunity for nutrition education. They discuss the health benefits of the snack they have eaten with the goal in mind of getting students to think about what they are eating. 

“We have a healthy behaviors initiative, our goal is to make sure that it’s a healthy snack,” Pinto said. “And so it looks a little different from what we purchased through revolutionary foods.”

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