Six months after levee breach flooded their classrooms, Pajaro Middle School students settle into new normal
The March 11 failure of the Pajaro River levee forced the closure of Pajaro Middle School until at least fall of 2024. Now at the start of a new academic year, the middle school’s more than 400 students are settling into their temporary academic home inside Watsonville’s Lakeview Middle School. Students say they’re getting into a routine but still miss their school.
In the nearly six months since the Pajaro River levee breach forced the long-term closure of Pajaro Middle School, students say they’re slowly adjusting to their new academic home inside Lakeview Middle School.
“Right now I feel settled, but in the beginning it was very chaotic,” said Alexia Jimenez, 12, who started seventh grade this year. Jimenez, like several other students Lookout spoke to on a Wednesday in late August, lives in Las Lomas, a community south of Pajaro in Monterey County that wasn’t affected directly by the flooding.
On March 11, the Pajaro River levee breach flooded the northern Monterey County town of Pajaro, home to more than 3,000 residents. The breach damaged hundreds of homes, caused millions of dollars in crop destruction and caused many families to be displaced for several weeks. Some were forced out of their homes for months and continue to live in temporary housing.
The floods also damaged Pajaro’s middle school, forcing the district to scramble to move more than 400 students to Lakeview Middle School in Watsonville, where administrators expect them to remain until the fall of 2024 while their school undergoes extensive renovations.
Now at the start of a new academic year, and more settled into their temporary school accommodations, Pajaro Middle School students say they’re getting into a routine but still miss their school.
While some students say they’re struggling to feel welcome at Lakeview Middle, others said they were getting used to the new normal and that there were improvements this year, like fewer altercations between students and not having to share rooms with multiple classes.
Anecdotally, administrators say they’ve heard that some students felt a sense of division between the Pajaro and Lakeview communities last school year — something school leaders say they’re working to address this year.
“The kids lost their school. Some lost their homes and some were even moved from one hotel to another last week,” Pajaro Valley Unified School District Interim Superintendent Murry Schekman wrote in an email to Lookout on Sept. 5. “But we are seeing some resilience among the PMS students, part of it follows the pandemic and is a desire for normalcy.”
It’s not clear how many students in the district remain without a permanent home, said Katie Kriscunas, the new principal for both Pajaro and Lakeview middle schools. However, Kriscunas said the district is working with organizations to address basic needs such as food and housing insecurity.
Eighth grade science teacher Jordan Rice said he feels better prepared to support students this year now that he has his own classroom. Last year, due to space restrictions, he and two other Pajaro Middle classrooms shared a multipurpose room that officials divided into three sections with temporary walls.
He and his students had to keep their voices down to not disturb the other classes, making it difficult to feel as though they could have the freedom to have engaging conversations.
Arnold Figueroa, who also teaches eighth grade math and science, was one of the teachers who shared the large multipurpose room with Rice. He’s also relieved to not be worried about noise levels.
“That was one of the big challenges last year, especially for the students as well, because I felt like at times, they couldn’t really have a voice,” he said. “And having actual desks, and not using cafeteria tables” for classroom seating.
Alexia Jimenez remembers how it was in Figueroa’s class last year. “It was hard for him because we couldn’t be as loud, and he couldn’t be as loud as he wished,” she said. “So we couldn’t really hear.”
Now, Rice said he and his students feel a huge relief to be as loud as they need to be.
“I don’t have to worry about moderating how loud I am, or how loud my students are, so that I can actually teach instead of having to be so concerned about the noise level,” he said.
Still, there are challenges. Rice has just 27 stools for a total of 34 students, leading him to get creative with supplies. In addition to waiting on a request for more stools from the district office, he’s working with Resource Area for Teaching, a nonprofit that provides used office supplies and furniture at a discount for teachers who can make the drive to its San Jose location.
Jimenez said in addition to the classrooms improving from last year, she and her classmates have a better understanding of the campus layout. Last year, she said she and her classmates often arrived late because it took time to learn where the classrooms were.
For Jimenez, the transition last year to their new campus happened very quickly. She feels that compared to last year, students are calmer and have become used to the new routine.
Rice, however, is concerned that there’s been a decline in students’ academic performance since the levee breach.
“You can tell that there is an obvious dip in their learning — because for some people, they lost their homes, they lost some family,” said Rice, sitting in his classroom the last week of August.
Rice emphasized that his focus is on making sure the students feel comfortable and enjoy being at school.
“When I give a student an honest compliment for a project presentation, and they look like they’re almost going to cry because they’re genuinely shocked that they got a compliment — that’s a sign to me that they need a lot of positive encouragement and they need a lot of that positive attention,” he said.
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Kriscunas said she didn’t have sufficient data available to show the impact of the levee breach on learning. She’s working with the school’s leadership to find ways to best assess and improve student academic progress. So far this year, Pajaro Middle School students have an almost 97% attendance rate.
However, what has become difficult this year is the commute to school for students who live in Las Lomas, an unincorporated community south of Pajaro.
Seventh grader Karina Escutia, 12, said it would normally take her about 20 minutes to get home from Pajaro Middle School. But now it takes her over an hour to get home because of the traffic from Lakeview Middle School going south to Las Lomas from Watsonville.
Kriscunas said district officials are continuing to improve the bus system for Pajaro Middle School students, but Lakeview’s distance from the Pajaro community is perhaps the greatest challenge in her new role this year as principal of both schools.
Six Pajaro Middle School students who started the year at Lakeview have since left. The school’s attendance specialists estimate that all or most of them switched schools primarily because of the commute.
Kriscunas has also heard anecdotally from staff that Pajaro families struggled to feel a sense of belonging at the Lakeview Middle campus last year.
“I think part of that came down to the optics, having two different bell schedules, two different office areas, two different bus times,” she said.
This year, Pajaro Middle and Lakeview Middle change classes at the same time — one of several updates meant to improve cohesion between the two schools. Several Pajaro Middle School students said they thought having the two schools on separate schedules, as they did last year, allowed them to change classes at different times and helped to reduce crowding in the walkways between classes.
“Now that we’re together, we crash into each other,” said 12-year-old Camila Melgoza, a seventh grader.
Last year, Pajaro Middle School administrators had their own separate office area and a sign in front of the school helped to direct parents in the direction of that office. This year, there’s just one office.
Upon entering the office, the signage is all for Lakeview Middle and its mascot, the Eagles. But a closer look reveals small clues that two schools share the space. Receptionists on the right side of the office answer the phone saying, “Pajaro Middle School,” and receptionists on the left side answer the phone with “Lakeview Middle School.”
Kriscunas said she and the staff are going to add more signage to help families immediately notice the differences. The school is also focused on engaging more with families and maintaining separate school identities while still unifying the students.
“The challenge, and honor, of this position is taking two different school communities and cultures and finding ways to see the strengths of both of them and leveraging those traits to create a sense of unity for a year,” she said.
In an effort to help families feel more welcome, she’s starting to plan outreach opportunities to go to the Pajaro community, such as hosting a table at the Watsonville farmers market. Her first event was hosting a meet-and-greet at Pajaro Park in July ahead of the school year.
“What was really cute was we ended up with kids and families of all ages,” she said, adding that families with students from Hall and Ohlone elementary schools also attended.
Schekman, the interim superintendent, said district staff are preparing a report on Pajaro Middle School’s recovery to present to the board of trustees at its Sept. 27 meeting, including details on the renovations, student success and challenge.
With some Pajaro students questioning whether renovations of the school will finish in time for the students to return to their campus next year, Schekman said the district can’t predict at this point when exactly they’ll be able to return.
“Too early to make that prediction,” he wrote in an email. “There are some issues with the supply chain but getting the site ready is an absolute district priority.”
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