Merced College’s Los Banos Campus is on the verge of unprecedented expansion, to include a new child development center, an outdoor fitness lab, an ag horticulture lab adjacent to a rejuvenated food forest and a student café.

All of these plans were discussed by Dr. Chris Vitelli, the college president, during his March 17 roundtable presentation at the Los Banos Campus, to which Los Banos community leaders were invited.

Merced College has had a campus in Los Banos since 1971, and besides the development of a permanent campus that opened in 2007, the current plan calls for the most significant advancement in programs and facilities in its history.

Hosted by Vitelli and Joe Gutierrez, the Merced College board member who represents the Westside of the college district, the roundtable presentation also included plans to work more closely with the Los Banos Unified School District in collaboration to develop stronger pathways between high school and college.

“I am committed, with the support of our board of trustees, to have the Los Banos Campus continue to develop and strengthen its identity,” Vitelli said, “and to have the students there feel like it’s a comprehensive college campus. We already have a great staff on campus that is working hard to help every student succeed.

“One of the reasons,” Vitelli added, “that we’re planning on having a café on campus is to encourage students who come for classes to stay longer on campus and engage with each other, the faculty and the staff. We want students to feel it’s truly their campus with all the resources needed for their personal success.”

In keeping with the theme of establishing an identity for the Los Banos Campus, for the first time in its 52-year history, the campus will hold an official graduation ceremony in the campus quad this May, where graduates and their families can  celebrate the students’ success in their hometown.

“The college recognizes that one of the greatest potentials for growth in enrollment in the district is in Los Banos and surrounding areas,” Vitelli added, “because of the expected growth in population on the Westside of the district. We need to further develop our campus now and during the next 10 years to accommodate that enrollment growth.”

The new Los Banos Campus Child Development Center will be housed in a high-quality modular facility directly behind Building B. The college has already hired a full-time faculty member for the Los Banos Campus in child development and expects to open the center this fall.

The college is also in the process of hiring a full-time faculty member in agriculture, who would offer plant science and horticulture classes this fall at the Los Banos Campus using the existing food forest, as well as other ag related classes to meet student demand.

The campus’s food forest was first developed with a grant written by two campus professors in 2014 as a garden area with fruit-bearing trees, berry bushes and herbs along the area between the campus parking lots and the Los Banos Creek. It is designed as an outdoor lab, to help students better understand how plants develop and how to best retain water.

During the COVID pandemic, the food forest declined, but now the college is allocating funds to not only return it to its pre-COVID condition but to make it more accessible for students, with additional walkways, outdoor learning spaces and signage. In addition, there is a plan to create a greenhouse as a horticultural lab adjacent to the foot forest.

Installing an outdoor fitness lab will enable students to take kinesiology and physical education courses at the Los Banos Campus. The lab would also be available for students to use for their personal fitness training and would offer another reason for students to stay on campus.

During the March 17 roundtable there was considerable discussion about how the college and the local school district could increase collaboration for the benefit of all students.

Dr. David Horton., Director of Secondary Education at the Los Banos Unified District, agreed with the college president on the many opportunities for collaboration in Los Banos, including strengthening career pathways from high school to college in areas such as agriculture and health care.

Horton and Vitelli also see opportunities to develop in-person dual enrollment (DE) courses at both Los Banos and Pacheco High Schools to complement the current online DE courses the college currently offers high school students. DE courses enable students to earn both high school and college credits simultaneously.

Similarly, Vitelli and Horton both saw opportunities for development of DE courses in career and technical education, in areas such as agriculture, welding and business. They both agreed that the Merced County Regional Occupational Program (ROP) vocational courses in Los Banos could be included in an expansion of dual enrollment and dual credit.

In addition, both agreed on the opportunity for the school district and the college to work more closely to encourage high school and junior high school students to understand that college can be the next step after high school for every student, either in transfer or career tech programs.

The college will be encouraging the Dean of the Los Banos Campus Jessica Moran and the faculty and  staff to go out into the community more often and talk with groups and individuals about the plans for the campus’s growth and development

“The sky’s the limit for the Los Banos Campus,” said Merced College trustee Joe Gutierrez. “I can see the day when the campus becomes a college of its own within the Merced Community College District. In order to get to that point, we need to continue to develop our programs and facilities in Los Banos as we are planning to do.”