Based in Watsonville, Pajaro Valley Unified School District is the largest in Santa Cruz County.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
K-12 Education

PVUSD fall school enrollment over projections as pandemic ebbs: ‘We can hug each other’

Santa Cruz County’s largest school district is off to a “smooth start,” says interim superintendent Murry Schekman. Enrollment is up, the Pajaro Valley Unified School District teaching corps is almost fully staffed — but chronic absenteeism poses challenges.

Pajaro Valley Unified School District Interim Superintendent Murry Schekman says the district, which returned to instruction Aug. 15, has enrolled about 500 more students than it had projected for this school year.

That puts the student body at about 15,758, when it had projected 15,200.

Schekman said he doesn’t know for sure why the numbers are so much higher — and that it could just be a random increase after years of declining enrollment. Santa Cruz City Schools is also expecting to have more students enrolled than it projected, according to district spokesperson Sam Rolens. Each fall, say administrators, the number of enrolled students fluctuates — up or down — during the first few weeks of school.

“I’m only speculating, but I know the previous superintendent and the district really ended on a positive note last year,” Schekman told Lookout on Tuesday. “[With high] graduation rates, it ended on a positive note. So that might have conveyed a positive message to the community.”

Schekman was appointed over the summer as interim superintendent after the departure of Michelle Rodriguez. He takes over at a time when schools are continuing to see high rates of absenteeism and mental health challenges exacerbated by the pandemic. Further, the district’s Pajaro Middle School continues to operate at Watsonville’s Lakeview Middle School because the Pajaro River levee breach damaged the school.

Still, amid it all, Schekman, a veteran administrator who had worked at PVUSD schools for more than 20 years, noted an increasing sense of pre-pandemic normalcy.

On the first day of school, Schekman visited several schools — the first of which was Aptos Junior High. “The lust for normalcy,” he said, was evident among the students.

In one scenario, he saw a group of four or five different cars pulling up as students stepped out onto the campus for the first time in months. As the students exited the cars, they were ready to do something they couldn’t in the midst of the pandemic.

“We can hug each other!” he recalled them shouting. “And they did, and I was so moved by that.”

As for enrollment, Schekman said he doesn’t know yet which schools or grade levels saw bigger bumps in enrollment, or where the students are coming from. Because of the increase, the district added a second grade class at Rio Del Mar Elementary and two sections related to a career technical education class at Watsonville High.

Schekman added that he didn’t expect the district would hire additional staff for those recently added sections.

While in previous years teacher vacancies were an issue for PVUSD, currently, the district lists just five open teaching positions: a music teacher at Mintie White Elementary, a literacy coach at Calabasas Elementary, a music position at Edward A. Hall Middle School, a math teacher at Pajaro Valley High School and an agricultural science teacher at Watsonville High.

“And that’s it,” said Schekman. “Having human resources be so successful in hiring really makes the biggest difference. I also give credit to the negotiations with our teachers union, that the pay raise that our teachers deserved and earned certainly helped to welcome new people to the district and certainly added to the good start and having everybody in their place.”

The agricultural science position might take a while to fill, but Schekman said he expects the other positions to be filled by the end of next week.

Schekman said the district is also working to renovate Pajaro Middle School, which “should be good for next year.” In the meantime, the school is sharing the Lakeview Middle School campus with those students and staff in Watsonville.

This year, just one principal will be overseeing both those schools, Kathryn Kriscunas. Assistant principals from each school report to Kriscunas, who was previously a teacher and an assistant principal at Aptos High School.

Schekman said attendance and enrollment for Pajaro Middle School — many of whose students and families were affected by the winter flooding — has continued without any “aberration.”

One issue the district faces this fall is absenteeism, especially in its high schools. Last year, PVUSD measured a chronic absenteeism rate of 42% across all the schools in the district. Schekman says the district, like many across the country, are still recovering from the many impacts the pandemic had on students.

“The excessive absenteeism from last year was the fallout from the pandemic. I wasn’t here then, but when I started and inquired, the general response was we were still struggling with kids who were hurt,” he said. “It was very much related to COVID isolation that some of our kids felt.”

Schekman said each school site follows the same procedures when students are absent or completely disappear from school.

Any time a student misses school, staff makes a phone call to a student’s parents or guardians. If there’s no response, they continue to call and make a referral to the Office of Pupil Personnel Services. At some point, a staff member will make a home visit.

“We’ll make home visits. In other words, we will be eyeball to eyeball with a family of somebody who’s missing school and keep plugging away until we can get that kid into a school,” Schekman said. “That may not be the school they’ve been assigned to — there can be issues between that child and whatever’s going on in the school — but we have alternatives to look at.”

He said in a few weeks, he’ll look into the results of the protocol to measure how well it works in tracking down students who miss class.

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