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Ground breaks for 1st River Islands campus
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Banta School District, River Islands at Lathrop staff, and city leaders turn the ceremonial dirt to break ground for a $25 million high-tech elementary school. - photo by DENNIS WYATT

LATHROP — It was a moment celebrating Private-Public Partnership 101.

River Islands at Lathrop Project Manager Susan Dell’Osso was extolling the virtues of a marriage between two entities with roots deep in the 19th century – the Banta School District and Cambay Group – that were now embarking on a cutting edge 21st century journey.

She stood Wednesday in the heart of the 11,000-home planned community in the heart of River Islands that stretches for five miles from north to south on Stewart Tract.  Earth movers behind her were in the initial stage of transforming 30 acres into a state-of-the-art technology-driven school for some 750 students that will open in August of 2013. She was surrounded by Banta School District dignitaries, and city leaders such as Lathrop Councilman Omar Ornelas who had brought with him a contingent of youth who one day will look back on Nov. 16, 2011 as something special.

It will be remembered as the day when a developer for the first time ever bankrolled the entire local 50 percent match of a new $25 million school and invested $5 million in infrastructure upfront without a squawk and at its insistence. And if that California rarity wasn’t enough, a company that started in 1856 as a clipper ship operation has forged a working relationship with a 132-year-old school district that today has only 300 students to set the stage for what promises to be among the vanguard of most technological advanced elementary public schools in the Golden State where computer tablets will render conventional textbooks obsolete.

 As the requisite shovels of dirt were turned, crews in the distance were busy working on a $17 million bridge crossing of the San Joaquin River while others were grading the school site. They were working on land being protected against floods by California’s most bullet-proof levees - 300-foot wide creations not funded with state or tax dollars but private sector money.

The three improvements alone - the levees, the school, and the bridge - represent in excess of a $100 million in the future of Lathrop done on the dime of the private sector plus $12 million in state school bond money.

It is a future that will include 11,000 homes, potentially 16,800 business park jobs, and restoration of the San Joaquin River banks and eco-systems to what existed back in the days when Cambay Group’s founding father Ralph Chapman first sailed the seven seas. Cambay Group has yet to build a home - and may not do so for two or more years. They are patiently waiting out the economic storm while putting everything in place to make River Islands a major lure for those seeking everything from executive homes with million dollar views overlooking the river to single family homes, apartments, and condos above stores on the town square.

“I’d like to thank Allan Chapman for his vision,” Banta School District Superintendent Bill Draa said of the driving force behind Cambay Group.

Draa noted that the district has been working closely with the San Joaquin Office Of Education to make sure that when the doors open effective technology to make learning more productive will be in place.

Not only did Cambay insist on making growth as painless as possible as River Islands over the next 20 or so years adds 8,000 students to create a district with an enrollment 26 times larger than it is today, but they were willing to do what it took to make Banta’s second school ever a true campus of the future.

The first phase will serve 750 kindergartens through eighth-grade students with 25 classrooms, a multipurpose room, and ball fields. The site - when a second phase is done - will handle 1,500 students.

Assemblyman Bill Berryhill - a former school board trustee himself - noted it was an extreme rarity in California to see such cooperation between developer and school district.

That cooperation, Dell’Osso believes, will create school that will make raising a family in River Islands “extremely attractive.”

River Islands ultimately will have six elementary schools, two middle schools, and one high school. The first campus is likely to open as a charter school since no homes are expected to have been built in River Islands by the time it is completed. Also, Banta has no major development elsewhere in its district. The targeted student body for the charter school will be students in the Tracy, Lathrop, and Manteca area.

River Islands is a project that is now 22 years in the making. It originally started out as Gold Rush City. It became known as River Islands in 2001 when Cambay bought all 4,800 acres.

Cambay Group’s long-term commitment is legendary. Their San Ramon project of 10,000 homes on 5,000 acres took 17 years from the time of inception to the first home being built.