Lodi Unified School District may be one step closer to having a school that specializes in robotics, drones and automation.

During Tuesday night’s meeting at the James Areida Education Support Center in Lodi, the LUSD received an update on Valley Robotics Academy, a collaborative project with San Joaquin Delta College intended to provide science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) and career technical education (CTE) opportunities to students who otherwise might not have them.

Valley Robotics will eventually serve students from seventh-grade up to high school seniors, offering classes in robotics, drones and automation held at a Lodi school site that has not yet been identified, as well as Delta College in Stockton.

“I think this is a real opportunity to make some magic,” Jeff Palmquist, assistant superintendent of secondary education for LUSD, said.

Since Valley Robotics was first proposed to the board in January, Palmquist said the district has formed a steering committee to review the proposed plans — along with the school board — before the district develops a draft budget and a memorandum of understanding with Delta College later this month.

The committee includes board member George Neely, Lincoln Technical Academy Principal Julie Jansen, Middle College High Principal Jim Davis and Salvador Vargas, Delta College’s dean of CTE and workforce development, Palmquist said, and the committee will soon expand to include school counselors, current LUSD robotics teachers and other experts.

“We want to include them to help guide and direct this as we move toward our next steps,” Palmquist said.

Vargas and Davis were discussing ways to expand the Middle College program late last year before deciding that students would be better served by a new school dedicated to robotics, which Vargas said could open as soon as next school year.

“My job is to make sure our students — locally — stay here and they find jobs. We need to find them the right jobs, and automation and robotics is one of those areas that we’re missing,” Vargas said. “I’m very excited to be able to support that effort and to be able to engage with Lodi (Unified School District) to do something that nobody else is doing in the state.”

In addition to obtaining an industry certificate or associate’s degree in automation mechanics, Vargas said Valley Robotics students will also have the option to transfer to Bakersfield College — one of 13 community colleges in California that offer bachelor’s degrees — for a bachelor’s in automation and robotics.

The district has also developed drafts of a proposed enrollment plan for Valley Academy — which can be adjusted based on student interest, program success, available resources, board direction and staff feedback — as well as a proposed education plan.

Under the proposed enrollment plan, Valley Robotics would have 30 students in seventh grade, 30 in eighth grade and 32 in ninth grade during the 2019-20 school year, Palmquist said.

By the 2022-23 school year, the school would have 60 students in seventh grade, 60 in eighth grade, 32 in ninth grade, 30 in 10th grade, 28 in 11th grade and 28 in 12th grade for a total of 238 students.

Under the proposed education plan, middle school students would attend Valley Robotics Academy from 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. daily.

High school students would attend Valley Robotics from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. every day, and from 2 to 4:30 p.m. on Delta College days — currently projected to be two days a week for ninth grade.

A 1 p.m. bus would take students one-way from Valley Robotics to Delta on Delta College days, but no home-to-school transportation will be provided.

“This is really exciting, good stuff,” board member Courtney Porter said.

When asked by Porter how classes will be scheduled at Valley Robotics, Palmquist said the school will offer core classes during the day, much like any other school in the district.

“I think the unique feature would be integration with some of the computer science and robotics into those core areas, but the classes themselves already exist on our books,” Palmquist said.

In addition to increasing the initial ninth-grade enrollment, Neely said Valley Robotics should use an all-digital curriculum so that teachers can modify it as needed.

“For example, an English teacher could use that basis of the digital curriculum, and add to it things that are specific to robotics,” Neely said.

Although the district has already identified $2,483,805.60 to fund the new school — which is estimated to cost $3,189,927.88 over the next three years — Neely said the district should also pursue funding sources such as corporate grants as soon as possible.

“I’m sure there are some corporations out there that would love to get behind something like this,” Neely said. “Especially that collaboration with Delta College.”

After Neely stressed the importance of Valley Robotics’ student population reflecting LUSD’s demographics, board member Ron Freitas asked Palmquist if the school will have criteria for enrollment.

“We, the committee, felt very strongly that this needs to be open to every single student who wants to take advantage of it,” Palmquist said.

Board member Ron Heberle, a self-described proponent of CTE and STEM programs, believes Valley Robotics will help prepare students to enter the workforce as robots have become more common in manufacturing, he said, which has created a need for employees who know how to operate them and maintain them.

“This is more than just tinkering and making a little robot walk and roll over,” Heberle said. “That’s how it starts, that’s what you need to do because let’s face it: Kids love building stuff, they love working with their hands and that in itself gives you kind of a basic knowledge of how things operate.”

Despite his excitement about working with Delta College on what he believes will be a “great asset for our region,” Heberle did have some concerns about the new school.

“I don’t want this academy to destroy what we’re already building at our middle schools and high schools in the way of CTE and STEM courses,” Heberle said. “We don’t want to tear down or minimize or eliminate. This is another option that would help grow kids’ opportunities, so let’s keep the focus on building without destroying.”

Once the budget is approved and the MOU is executed in March, the district will be able to post positions for administrators, counselors and classified personnel. The district will be able to post teaching positions created for Valley Robotics by April 15, which will be covered under current agreements.

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