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Following Covid Money in Education

EdSource Special Report

How one district used Covid funds to send kids to camp — on a college campus

Above: Students from Lodi Unified take part in a summer program at University of the Pacific where they learned video production, animation, 3-D modeling, graphic design and other skills.

Summer can be pretty slow in Lodi if you’re a teenager. There’s the pool, there’s pizza night at the teen center, and there’s TV.

But 240 high school students from Lodi Unified escaped boredom this summer when they spent two weeks at University of the Pacific, living in the dorms, socializing and taking classes on topics like music production, filmmaking, business investing and 3-D animation — all paid for with Covid relief funds from Lodi Unified.

The Central Valley district spent almost $800,000 of its federal Covid funds to send students to Pacific’s Summer High School Institute, a program that introduces high school students to the rigors and rewards of college life. The cost was $3,300 per student, which included housing, food, activities and classes taught by Pacific professors.

“This year kids were feeling discontented, but they couldn’t say exactly why. So we wanted to do something special for them,” said Mariya Wharry, Lodi Unified’s program manager. “We wanted to invest in something that would make kids say ‘wow.’”

Like districts across the country, Lodi Unified received millions in federal and state Covid relief funding to address the impacts of the pandemic. Under the law, districts can hire more teachers, tutors and counselors; purchase technology such as tablets and Wi-Fi hotspots; invest in Covid protective measures like masks, hand-washing stations and heating, ventilation and air condition upgrades; and pay for programs that address learning loss, such as after-school and summer activities.

Lodi Unified has so far spent about half of its $131 million in Covid relief funds and expects to have spent it all by the August 2024 deadline, according to Robert Sahli, assistant superintendent of curriculum. That means that the district will have money for at least another two years to send students to Pacific’s summer institute, as well as other summer programs like camping trips and science camps.

For the Pacific summer institute, the district chose participants through a lottery, with all but 30 students being accepted. The only requirement was that they were enrolled in high school in Lodi Unified, which encompasses the city of Lodi as well as northern Stockton and surrounding rural areas.

In addition to the 240 who came from Lodi Unified, another 80 students in the institute came from elsewhere, including New York and Canada. A handful were scholarship students from other Northern California school districts, including Stockton Unified, Manteca Unified and Calaveras Unified.

For many, the two-week excursion was the longest they’d been away from home and their first time on a college campus. They got to meet peers from other parts of the country, learn new skills and get a taste of college life.

Credit: Carolyn Jones / EdSource

Sophia Sanchez, left, and Adrianna Laviolette, incoming freshmen at Lodi High, were among the 240 students from Lodi Unified who enrolled in University of the Pacific’s summer institute for high school students.

Sophia Sanchez, an incoming freshman at Lodi High, opted for the pharmacy program, where she learned about compounding and immunizations, how to reverse opioid poisoning, clinical trials and other topics. She hopes to one day become a pharmacist.

“I love it so much,” she said. “I’ve learned so much. I’m really appreciative I got this opportunity. If the district didn’t pay for this, I never would have been able to do this because my parents can’t afford it.”

Her friend Adrianna Laviolette, also an incoming freshman at Lodi High, gave up cheerleading camp to attend the institute.

“This has been a really great experience. It’s even helped me with cheer,” she said, noting that she enrolled in the women’s leadership program, which has helped her gain confidence and understand what it means to be a role model. “I’ve learned there’s lots of ways to be an effective leader.”

Aleena Aguirre, an incoming senior at McNair High School in Stockton, enrolled in a course called Innovating with Purpose, where students learned to shoot video using drones, build 3-D models, create virtual reality experiences, design graphics and do other activities.

Credit: Carolyn Jones / EdSource

Aleena Aguirre, an incoming senior at McNair High School in Stockton, worked on a plush keychain she designed in a course at University of the Pacific.

One afternoon last week she was sewing a bright yellow, duck-shaped plush keychain she had designed on a computer. Although she ultimately wants to be a pediatrician, she was enjoying the creativity and hands-on activities of the innovation class.

“It’s really opened my perspective. I feel like I’m out of my comfort zone,” she said. “I’ve also met a ton of people from different backgrounds, which has been really fun.”

If she was at home, she said, she’d be spending the summer staring at her phone.

One of the more popular programs at the institute was eSports, also known as gaming. Twenty students spent their days in a darkened room in front of computer monitors, shooting at targets and racking up points.

But the instructor, Pacific business professor Lewis Gale, wove in academic topics, as well. Students learned about the business of esports, marketing, strategy, communication, the importance of collaboration and teamwork, and job opportunities related to gaming skills, such as information technology.

Uriel Lopez Cortes, who’ll be a junior at Tokay High in Lodi, said he was excited to learn that gaming can actually lead to jobs in the technology sector. He also learned how the business of esports works, and how professional gamers earn money — sometimes, lots of money.

But it’s the other aspects of the institute he enjoys the most, such as big breakfasts of pancakes, eggs and bacon, and meeting new people.

“Last summer I was home all the time, bored,” he said. “But this is fun.”

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  1. Kimmy B 9 months ago9 months ago

    Great use of the funds! I wish more districts would directly use the funds on the kids, versus funneling it back to the staff.

  2. Eric Premack 9 months ago9 months ago

    Hats off to Lodi Unified for thinking outside the box. This sounds like a great idea.

  3. Faye Johnson 9 months ago9 months ago

    BEST use of these funds I’ve seen yet!!!! These students’ lives were changed with this program. The great majority of our Central Valley students never even know such programs exist, let alone are able to attend. The district not only made up for any learning loss these kids experienced, they put their lives on an entirely new trajectory.


    • Adelita Gomez 9 months ago9 months ago

      I couldn’t have said it better! What a fantastic use of these funds! Hopefully they can keep out going once these funds end.