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LAUSD’s first robotics magnet powers middle school’s boosted enrollment

Craig Clough | September 1, 2016

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Jasmine Hernandez and James Gusman, both 6th-graders, design a robot at Mulholland Middle School Robotics Magnet.

When Gregory Vallone took over as principal of Mulholland Middle School in Lake Balboa five years ago, it had experienced years of enrollment decline. The school once had 1,850 students but was down to 1,250.

Then Vallone started a magnet.

Vallone — a principal, teacher and administrator with LA Unified since 1974 — had been involved in starting magnet programs before, and Mulholland already had a popular police magnet. His father worked in the entertainment industry, and Vallone was thinking of starting a film magnet until he read a quote from Bill Gates comparing the robotics industry to the computer industry of the 1970s.

“Bill Gates is likening the robotics industry today to the computer industry when it started. and if he says that, that’s where I want my kids to go,” Vallone said. “The people that got into computers early on ended up being the leaders of this country and owning the means of production. The people who understand robotics will be the leaders in the next generation.”

So Vallone and key members of his staff got together and started drafting a proposal to start a robotics magnet, and soon after they approached former LA Unified school board member Tamar Galatzan to see if she could help. Galatzan gave the school $150,000 from her discretionary bond funds, which Vallone and his staff used to build a robotics lab for an after-school program that launched last year. The program expanded to a full robotics magnet this year, LA Unified’s first, with roughly 200 6th- and 7th-graders enrolled in the Mulholland Middle School Robotics Magnet.

IMG_1570Vallone said the district projected enrollment would be around 950 this year, but it’s 1,250.

“You have to offer something to the community that they want. We are a business in the end and we serve our community,” Vallone said. “Our community is kind of our boss, and they tell us what they want by leaving the school or coming to the school.”

The early success of the program in attracting students to the school is just what LA Unified leaders and Superintendent Michelle King have sought, as they’ve pegged magnets as a cornerstone strategy to increase enrollment in the district after years of decline.

Mulholland was 87 percent Latino last school year. Thirty-four percent of its tested students met or exceeded the English language arts standard on the latest California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP) tests, and 22 percent met or exceeded the math standard. Both were below the LA Unified average.

Thursday morning, dozens of students buzzed around a 6th-grade classroom as they designed and tested robot rovers. The students work in pairs, building the rovers and authoring the code that controls them. Not surprisingly, many expressed an interest in becoming scientists or engineers. And maybe, you know, altering the world as we know it.

Sixth-grader Dean Gendernalik said when he grows up he wants to “try to fit a nuclear power source on almost anything, because nuclear power sources last for almost ever, but maybe I will make it so it’s a little more stable so it doesn’t just blow up.”

IMG_1573Seventh-grader Cassandra Funez also is not lacking in ambition.

“It’s very rare to see a woman doing engineering, so I thought it would be a rare idea to do it,” Funez said when asked what attracted her to the school.

As a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) program, the focus on robotics and science can extend far beyond the lab. Steven Lee, who teaches English language arts and history, finds creative ways to include robotics as part of his regular lesson plans. One writing lesson asked the kids to envision what a perfect robot would be.

“Of course, one wrote that the perfect robot would do all their homework. But others had more humanitarian visions,” he said.

Dan Luna spent 13 years teaching at Plummer Elementary before starting at Mulholland this semester teaching robotics, math and science. He said that because it’s a new program, the students aren’t the only ones learning new tricks.

“One difficulty we are having is they are not used to a lot of collaboration and group work, and to train them to use this as a tool and not necessarily a toy, that’s going to be the biggest challenge. Trying to get them to focus on their math work at the same time as a Lego project, that’s the most difficult thing I am having to deal with right now,” he said.

The students will be learning about how robotics work on land, air and sea. Construction is still underway on a tank where the kids can test out submersibles, Vallone said, and they will also get to build drones.

“We aren’t leveling the playing field here. I’m about defining our own playing field, because these kids will be the leaders in their generation,” Vallone said.

Vallone said the magnet school is organizing a robotics competition league and plans to have every middle school in Local District Northwest, which encompasses the west San Fernando Valley, signed up to participate by the end of September. Many of the other schools have at least one robotics class or an after-school program, and Vallone wants each to form a team and join the league.

“Technology and progress are not going to wait for anyone, but our kids are going to be ready for it,” Vallone said.

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