A robot named Apollo 1 is saving Aisha Velasquez's life.

A dropout before even reaching high school, raised by a single mom and caught up in gangs when most kids are swooning over their first crush, Velasquez has begun to turn her life around, inspired by a robotics class at an East San Jose continuation school called Apollo High.

"I had no interest at all in high school, so I never went," the 17-year-old said Saturday morning at a robotics competition at San Jose State University. "I had teachers who I could tell never thought I'd be anything. But the teachers at Apollo have showed me that I can believe in myself. They've shown me I can have hope."

One of nine girls in the 14-student robotics class taught by Michaela Brant, Velasquez has spent the past several months working with her classmates building Apollo 1 from scratch. Their wheel-based, Frisbee-tossing mash-up of wires, metal struts and computer-run motors so impressed judges at a recent robotics contest that the students, who call themselves the Illuminators, won a berth at this month's national robotics contest in St. Louis.

By learning team-building skills, sometimes alongside kids who may have been in rival gangs before coming to Apollo, the Illuminators are quickly earning the missing credits that will get them on track toward a two-year community college and possibly even careers in engineering, something that just two years ago seemed like an impossible dream.


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"I'm learning about wiring and batteries and working as part of a team," said Velasquez, her voice nearly drowned out by scores of screaming high-schoolers who had brought their robots to compete in the 15th annual Silicon Valley regional competition on Saturday. "And I'm learning how to talk to other people I never would have talked to a year ago."

Velasquez stood next to Apollo 1 in the "pit stop" area behind the caged arena, where remote-controlled robots from 60 teams around the West were duking it out for a chance to join the Illuminators in St. Louis.

Classmate Erika Saenz, a 17-year-old senior at Apollo, said Brant's robotics class has had a huge influence on her.

"I lost interest in school as a freshman because my teachers didn't seem that interested in teaching, so why should I be interested in learning?" said Saenz, whose parents are both janitors. "I was getting Ds and Fs at Mt. Pleasant High School, so I figured I should try and go someplace else."

That was Apollo, one of four "small but necessary schools" within the East Side Union High School District. With its small class sizes and individualized learning programs, Apollo is designed to help students who've struggled in traditional academic settings and fallen behind in earning the credits needed for graduation.

Most of the kids at the two-year high school are Latino; most have parents who speak little or no English and never went to college. It was here that the 24-year-old Brant, already a seasoned robotics geek whose dad works on the Bing search team at Microsoft, started teaching this year.

"The kids have really come a long way," Brant said. "Before, they weren't going to school or, if they were, they weren't passing their classes. Now they're passing, which I require of them if they want to stay on my team.

"And they're finally earning the credits that will take them to the level stage of their education," she said. "Of the 11 seniors on the team, all are now on track to go on to community college."

And it was the extra time and endless passion they applied in building Apollo 1 that turned them around. "They put in 3,000 after-school hours on this team working on this robot," Brant said. "The robot was something they could have pride in, and it made them each feel for the first time in their lives that they had accomplished something of real value."

Dan Costello, a mentor from team sponsor Microsoft, said the long hours working on Apollo 1 "have changed the way these kids view their lives now. They can see a career path, whereas before they could see nothing. It's all pretty miraculous."

Contact Patrick May at 408-920-5689 or follow him at Twitter.com/patmaymerc