- Associated Press - Monday, February 9, 2015

NATALIA, Texas (AP) - Small and largely out of the way, Natalia is quietly developing a reputation as a top center for learning a decidedly 21st Century discipline: robotics.

Natalia High School, which has 315 students, will send three teams, and possibly a fourth, to the TCEA, or Texas Computer Education Association, state robotics championship in May based on scores from the regional contest in Alamo Heights last month. It will mark the seventh straight year that Natalia has been represented at the TCEA championship, which allows schools of all sizes to compete against each other for prizes in two robotics categories.

“I wish I had their secret,” said Roland Rios, the technology director at the Fort Sam Houston Independent School District who is a TCEA director and helped put on its regional robotics contest. “They dominate.”

Its teams have finished as high as fourth place in past state contests, and last year had four teams at the state championship, a count matched by only two other school districts statewide, said Candace De Jesus, the teams’ sponsor and the school’s computer programming teacher.

“I didn’t envision the success we’ve had,” De Jesus told the San Antonio Express-News (https://bit.ly/1zH9UK4). “It’s very exciting. . It’s such a great thing for the kids.”

Rios attributes the success of the program to several factors: support from the school and the administration, students who want to work hard, and a teacher “with commitment and a real passion for what she does.”

“In any endeavor like this, you’ve got to have the right teacher at the helm, someone who can communicate well,” said Rios. “(Her students) are dedicated to her.”

De Jesus agreed that “the fit” between herself and her students has played a large role in the program’s accomplishments.

While any student can be part of the program, De Jesus recruits some of the top-performing students or students to fill specific team needs, like those who excel at making presentations, to be part of the program. She said she also strives to make the work fun so team members will want to return next year.

She said the school district’s support in purchasing updated robotic kits and sophisticated equipment, like a 3-D printer and scanner, has been essential to its success as well.

Jesse Vela, the high school principal, said the school district believes in the robotics program “wholeheartedly” and has invested tens of thousands of dollars in equipment and programming for teams at the high school, the elementary school and the junior high.

But he too felt that the commitment of the teachers and the students to put in the hours was key. They have a vision for what they want their robots to do, and “they want to win,” said Vela.

That competitive spirit has been forged by the years of success the program has had. De Jesus said her students work on their robots whenever they can during the day and put in extra hours after school because they want to honor the program’s legacy of success.

“When you’ve been (to state) every year, it’s an expectation,” the sponsor said. “It’s a matter of not settling for less.”


Information from: San Antonio Express-News, https://www.mysanantonio.com

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