Ceiba College Preparatory Academy will be allowed to stay in its Locust Street location after the Watsonville City Council narrowly approved a staff recommendation to rezone the area from industrial to institutional, granting Ceiba a special-use permit with some conditions.
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A Watsonville charter school is being allowed to stay in its current location after city councilors narrowly voted to approve a zoning change and special permit for the school during a marathon meeting that drew hundreds of local residents.
About 500 people crammed into Watsonville City Hall for nearly six hours on Tuesday as councilmembers debated the fate of Ceiba College Preparatory Academy.
Crowds filled council chambers, an overflow room and spilled out into the hallway. The vast majority of those in attendance were teachers, staff, students, families and supporters of Ceiba.
By around 11 p.m., when councilmembers finally voted 4-3 to approve the school’s request to continue operating out of a former DHL shipping facility several blocks from Watsonville City Plaza, supporters erupted into applause.
“For a moment I thought it was going to be a no. I was worried,” said senior Flor Zepeda, who has three other siblings at the school. “But then we got it. It was exciting.”
Founded in 2008, Ceiba serves 525 students in grades 6 through 12 and employs 60 staff, half of which half are teachers.
The charter school serves predominantly immigrant communities in Watsonville and Pajaro, helping prepare students for college. The school has had a 99% graduation rate since 2015, principal Josh Ripp told the meeting.
Many graduates are the first in their families to attend four-year colleges. Students, parents and other supporters say Ceiba offers a special mix of smaller classes and high-quality teachers and staff.
The school moved into the former DHL facility in 2013 initially on a temporary basis, but school officials struggled to find a suitable location elsewhere in Watsonville and instead started seeking approval in 2021 to make the facility a permanent home.
Ceiba’s location at 215 Locust St. in a mixed industrial and residential neighborhood has drawn sustained opposition in recent years. Neighbors have complained about problems with parking, traffic congestion, safety and disruption from students loitering after class. Several nearby residents had pressed the council to deny Ceiba a special-use permit to remain at the location, something school officials said could imperil the school’s future.
City staff had recommended that the council vote to change the zoning of the school building’s from industrial to institutional and grant Ceiba a special-use permit to operate a school at its location.
Mayor Eduardo Montesino and Councilmembers Maria Orozco, Kristal Salcido and Jimmy Dutra voted in favor of allowing the school to remain in the shipping facility, with added conditions that Orozco proposed.
Those conditions include creating an online form for residents to file complaints and a requirement that Ceiba hold a meeting within 60 days with business owners, along with biannual community meetings. For the next three years, Ceiba must also submit quarterly updates to the city on a variety of safety and community outreach issues updates.
Orozco and other councilmembers who voted in support of the project expressed concerns about traffic congestion and safety but said they felt that adding conditions and more regular reviews will lead to improvements.
“From listening to all of you, it seems like Ceiba is very much a part of the community. It feels like a family — it is a family to many of you,” Orozco said. “I want to make sure that that sentiment is echoed in that neighborhood, with our business partners.”
Councilmembers Vanessa Quiroz-Carter, Casey Clark and Ari Parker opposed the motion.
Parker said the conditions imposed on Ceiba and the plans to enforce them weren’t strong enough to convince her to support any permanent approval of a permit. However, she said that she would have supported giving the school more time to show more thoroughly how it would address concerns.
“I just don’t see any teeth whatsoever,” she said. “There’s so much liability in this situation.”
More than 60 members of the public spoke at the meeting, the majority in support of the school keeping its location. About nine speakers spoke in opposition.
Ripp told the meeting that the school has spent more than $6 million since 2013 to make the former shipping facility a good learning environment. He said officials have worked to address traffic issues and respond to safety concerns.
Ripp said Ceiba recently implemented a policy prohibiting dropoffs on Highway 129, or Riverside Drive. He said if school officials see parents violating traffic safety rules, such as dropping off kids outside of designated dropoff areas, they immediately approach guardians to inform them where the correct dropoff areas are.
Dozens of Ceiba students spoke about their love for the school during the meeting, including 17-year-old senior Isais Prieto. A soccer team captain, he said he was just informed he had been admitted to UC Berkeley with a full scholarship.
“That would not be possible without many of the staff — Ana Leonor, Daren Commons, Alison Sickler, Paulina Gonzalez — countless people that helped me achieve such an accomplishment,” he said. “We feel like family here.”
He said that similar to other local schools, Ceiba has room for improvement.
“Nothing is ever perfect, we’re always going to have complaints. But that doesn’t mean you can’t give us the opportunity to be better. Ceiba has changed my life — whether I like it or not,” Prieto said as the crowd chuckled.
Sixth grade student Leona Espinoza said Ceiba staff and teachers have helped her improve academically and have taken her to explore different parts of Santa Cruz.
“Ceiba has helped me in a lot of ways. It has helped me for my grades. My grades would go down because I would not do my work — but the teachers gave me opportunities to get my grades up,” she said. “The school does a lot of fun things for us. They took us to UC Santa Cruz, Science Workshop and so much more. Not only are the staff amazing and the counselors, but they support us no matter what.”
County Superintendent of Schools Faris Sabbah said Ceiba has worked to make improvements to address concerns and has had a great impact on the families in the community.
“The school is not perfect and it faces many of the same challenges schools across the county face — challenges like too little parking, nearby businesses, trash, off-task crossing guards, noise, frustrated neighbors,” he said. “These similarities also don’t eclipse the fact that this is a very special school — a unique school and it has helped provide opportunities for dozens and dozens of students to continue their education.”
Opponents of granting the school’s request to remain in the shipping facility said they were disappointed in the decision and at a loss for what to do next.
Nick Bulaich lives near the school and raised issues about traffic congestion, safety concerns for students during pickups and dropoffs, as well as parking. “I’ve got to go to the hospital to see if I can get the knife out of my back,” he said after the council voted to approve the school’s request. “I don’t know, this is just comedy.”
Bulaich and his sister Marta say the routes to drop off and pick up students are dangerous for students and local residents. During the meeting, Marta held a sign picturing a large truck on Highway 129 driving within several feet of a parked car.
“This is not a safe route to school. The city approved a 45 mph acceleration zone as a safe route to school, where parents exit,” said Marta, describing Highway 129. “This is still happening everyday.” (Ripp said the photo depicted a legal parking spot.)
Another local resident, Betsy Clark, emphasized her support for the school but her opposition to allowing it to stay in its location. As a child of immigrants, she said she identifies with Ceiba families and understands on a personal level what this school means to these families — but she still opposes its location.
“This is not the place for Ceiba,” she said, adding that no improvements have been made despite intentions. “It is very important that you understand that I am one of these kids.”
FOR THE RECORD: This story was updated Wednesday, March 1, with additional interviews and details from the meeting.