Los Angeles Magnet School Offers Robotics Focus

(Photo: Dean Musgrove, Los Angeles Daily News)

(Photo: Dean Musgrove, Los Angeles Daily News)

A first-of-its-kind robotics middle school in Los Angeles offers a hands-on curriculum for its students as well as the ability to gain the skills they will need to transform modern life.

Launched this fall by the Los Angeles Unified School District, the Mulholland Robotics STEAM Magnet School is one of several magnet schools created by the district in an effort to increase enrollment, which has been declining recently due to a number of factors including a reduced birth rate and competition from charter schools.

Magnet schools offer students a curriculum based around one specific subject area such as science, the arts, journalism, or robotics. Any student living within the district can enroll in the schools, although the competition to get in is fairly tough due to the lack of available space. While some magnets do have their own campuses, others work within existing traditional schools.

Enrollment in Mulholland had been on the decline when it was a traditional middle school nearly a decade ago. In total, enrollment at the school fell almost 40%, going from around 1,900 students in the mid-2000s to 1,130 in the 2014-15 school year, writes Dana Bartholomew for The Los Angeles Daily News.

Two years ago, it was estimated that enrollment would continue to drop, with a suggested 950 students enrolling for the 2016-17 school year.

"We used to be the school that everyone ran away from," said Gregory Vallone, who was recruited as Mulholland's principal with the directive to turn it around.

Vallone came up with the idea to create the robotics magnet school after reading a statement made by Microsoft's Bill Gates, who suggested robotics was similar to the software industry of the 1970s, saying it had great potential for growth. According to research performed by Connecticut-based Gartner, Inc., smart machines are expected to replace 90% of jobs by 2030.

After discussing the school with then-L.A. Unified board member Tamar Galatzan, Vallone was given $150,000 from Galatzan's discretionary bond fund in order to make the school a reality, creating not only a robotics lab but also an after-school program. In all, 200 6th and 7th grade students sought to attend the school this year, writes Pat Maio for EdSource.

"These kids are going to be the leaders of tomorrow. We're going to give these kids the future today. I'm passionate. We have a faculty that supports it. We're going to revolutionize this area," said Vallone.

Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Academy in Pittsburgh supplied the robotics curriculum and robot kits for the school. In addition, a large water tank is being built to allow students to test submersible drones, and a nearby field is being cleared to allow the testing of aerial drones.

"What I'm hoping is that the success of the program leads to more innovation within LAUSD," said Keith Abrahams, executive director of the district's student integration services and magnet schools. "My gut tells me I'll have more neighborhoods and communities that want to develop this type of robotics program in their schools."

There are currently 214 magnet schools throughout LA Unified, one-third of which have opened since 2009, with 16 opening just this year. Superintendent Michelle King announced that plans are in the works to add 13 more in 2017.

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