How a Pajaro Middle School teacher and her students are navigating recovery after Pajaro River levee breach

Pajaro Middle teacher Ebelin Mata talks about teaching her students at Lakeview Middle, on March 27, 2023.
Pajaro Middle School teacher Ebelin Mata talks about how she’s adjusted to teaching her students at Lakeview Middle School in Watsonville. Her laptop shows a photo of a flooded classroom at Pajaro Middle School.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

More than 400 students from Pajaro Middle School are now learning in makeshift classroom setups at Watsonville’s Lakeview Middle after their school flooded in March. “I find myself just feeling guilty that I’m trying to make the situation feel normal,” said Ebelin Mata, who teaches sixth and seventh graders. “When it’s not.”

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Ebelin Mata balanced two stacks of books in her arms as she strolled past several security guards and into the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds on her way to visit some of her students.

The 25-year-old was about seven months into her first education job teaching language arts and social studies at Pajaro Middle School when the Pajaro River levee failed March 11, shuttering the school and forcing many of Mata’s more than 90 students in sixth and seventh grades to flee the community of Pajaro.

Since then, Mata has been coming to the fairgrounds to visit her students and bring clothing, books and shoes to the hundreds of families living at the shelter, many of them farmworkers who, like her, are originally from Mexico.

It’s the closest thing she can do to help her students feel normal in trying times. “I find myself just feeling guilty that I’m trying to make the situation feel normal,” she said. “When it’s not.”

Mata knows the community well. Born in Mexico, she spent one year of kindergarten in Watsonville before she returned to Mexico. She then came back to the area in fourth grade, attending Lakeview Middle, among several schools in the Pajaro Valley Unified School District. She graduated from Watsonville High School.

She remembers how difficult it was to return to the United States, learn English as a fourth grader and adjust to the culture. “The curriculum here didn’t reflect who I was, and who I am, as the curriculum in Mexico did,” she said. “I realized that I wanted to be that for somebody who looked like me. So that’s why I continued this path.”

Though Monterey County lifted an evacuation order for Pajaro on March 23, some of Mata’s students and their families returned to the community to find their homes uninhabitable or damaged and their bedding, clothes and furniture destroyed. If they’re lucky, they have family nearby with enough space to house them temporarily.

After flood, a school within a school

Weeks after the floods, Mata estimates that around 10 of her students remain at the shelter. Two others left to stay with family in Los Angeles and Napa, though they have since returned. Some students did classes remotely. One student logs in to do her assignments remotely from the fairgrounds shelter, and another student didn’t return until Thursday.

Chairs submerged in floodwater on the Pajaro Middle School campus after a March 11 levee breach flooded Pajaro.
Chairs submerged in floodwater on the Pajaro Middle School campus after a March 11 levee breach flooded the town of Pajaro.
(Via Santa Cruz County Office of Education)

Pajaro Middle School has closed its doors several times, for a total of at least two weeks, since the start of the year because of storm damage and evacuation orders. District officials estimate the levee breach will force the school to close for the remainder of the school year.

A newly constructed classroom within Lakeview Middle School in Watsonville.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Days after the breach, Pajaro Middle School’s more than 420 students transferred to Lakeview Middle School in Watsonville, effectively opening up a brand-new school inside an existing one. Lakeview — which has capacity for about 1,000 students — was serving about 450 students most recently.

The constant disruptions to their lives and education have taken a toll on her students, Mata said.

On the first day back at school, just six of Mata’s 30 students arrived on time. Pajaro Middle School principal Juan Alcantar estimates that just over half of the school’s students made it to class at Lakeview that day, in large part because of delays with school buses navigating road closures from evacuation zones. One student told Mata that it took about three hours to get to school, which led the student to not even try to come the day after.

“I posted assignments online, and they were able to complete them. But even that was difficult because even if they weren’t in the evacuation area, a lot of them lived in areas that had power outages,” Mata said. “So even then, when they were safe at home, they didn’t have the electricity to be able to log in.”

Alcantar says while Pajaro Middle School is back to its attendance rate of about 90%, the move to reopen the school inside the Lakeview campus has brought new challenges.

The district hired a company to install partitions in medium and large rooms to accommodate several classes in one room. Mata teaches her students alongside two other sixth grade teachers in a large, multipurpose room that has been split into three separate classrooms.

Pajaro Middle principal Juan Alcantar outside a newly constructed classroom within Lakeview Middle School.
Pajaro Middle School principal Juan Alcantar just outside a newly constructed classroom within Lakeview Middle School in Watsonville.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

To not disturb the other classes, each group of students tries to keep their voices down. They’ve had to stop doing group assignment work, which is something the students say they miss about being on their own campus.

Because they share a campus, Lakeview and Pajaro students are on two separate schedules: with Pajaro Middle starting earlier, at 8 a.m., as opposed to Lakeview’s start time of 8:50 a.m. Mata said because of this, and the longer commute, some students come to school without eating breakfast.

Students are making it work, Mata said, but the adjustment has been hard for everyone.

“They’re working with what we have, because that’s just the way they’re kind of expected to be. I think this push to feel normal or to be back to normal — I don’t think it’s really fair,” she said. “I have some kids who show up one day, and then they don’t show up the next day, because of transportation or whatever the reason is, and I just feel like I’m not able to give them the education they deserve.”

‘Sometimes, I can forget about what happened’

As Mata headed into the fairgrounds on a Monday in late March, more than 330 people remained at the shelter. Outside, a group for 10 children drew colorful shapes on the concrete with chalk and peeled tangerines.

Inside, Mata stopped to visit with one of her sixth grade students, Juliet Salvador, who lost her home in the floods.

“I like going to school because I like studying,” said 12-year-old Salvador, speaking in Spanish. “And sometimes, I can forget about what happened.”

As Mata stopped to visit, Salvador’s mother, Rosalia Lopez, swept the floor around her family’s five cots. Three of her kids played and one of them lay down under a blanket.

The family also lost all of their belongings — beds, clothing and furniture — in the flood, Lopez said in Spanish. Their landlord told them that because of the damage, it could be up to two years before the home is repaired.

A pile of shoes, clothing and books donated to Pajaro Middle students
A pile of shoes, clothing and books donated to Pajaro Middle School students on the Lakeview Middle campus.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lopez and her husband both work in the nearby berry fields. Her husband is staying with family in Castroville, but the home doesn’t have enough space for Lopez and the kids, so they’re living at the shelter.

Lopez said she’s looking at rentals in the area and will apply, but she doesn’t know what will happen. She doesn’t want to leave the area because her kids want to stay at their schools with their friends.

“I don’t know what we’ll do,” said Lopez, sitting on her cot in the fairgrounds shelter. “They won’t let me stay here for a year.”

Monterey County Communications Director Nicholas Pasculli said the shelter will remain open for as long as there is need and that he didn’t know if the county has a threshold for determining at what point the shelter would close. County officials will be working with community organizations to ensure that people are housed.

Mata sees these compounding pressures weighing on her students. Some are less engaged, indifferent. Some have told her they’re absent from school simply because they don’t want to be there as it’s not their school.

Between the start of the school year and prior to the flood, Mata made just one referral for a student for counseling. But in the past three weeks, she’s made four or five referrals.

“Those students who I personally know that are impacted seem shut down, they just seemed indifferent to it all,” she said. “They’re going through this, and they went through the pandemic. And it’s just thing after thing, impact after impact, that these kids are having.”

A Pajaro Valley Unified School District bus leaves the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds after dropping off students.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

While school has been vital in providing stability for affected families, not enough support overall has been offered to the Pajaro community, said Jasmine Nájera, CEO of Pajaro Valley Prevention and Student Assistance, a nonprofit providing mental health and substance-use counseling to Pajaro Valley youth.

Founded as a labor camp for agricultural workers, the small community of Pajaro has long languished in the shadow of...

Nájera added that this is especially harmful because this is a community that has historically been underinvested in. “The supports that have been provided are just inadequate — families need much more support,” she said. “They feel abandoned. I want to encourage us all to continue to not forget about the Pajaro residents and their needs.”

The Monday after the breach, Nájera said the organization received a spike in crisis calls — about 15 — but those have since tapered off, with random smaller spikes. She attributes the drop in calls to people being focused on basic needs, such as food, clothing and housing.

“I think once people kind of settle in to the full impact, there will definitely be not only a greater need for mental health care, but we’re all credibly worried about the health risks of going back into those homes,” she said. “That’s also very worrisome to us, because we understand why people want to be in their homes — time is going to tell.”

Considering how much of a challenge affording rent and finding housing already was for many local residents, Nájera said she’s concerned about rising numbers of homeless families, people sleeping in their cars and moving away. She added that some families use up recovery payments of $500 to $1,000 from the state after just two nights of a hotel stay.

“This is going to continue to unfold in terms of the full impact and we don’t have the resources that are needed to be able to step in and ensure that people have a smooth transition into a safe, stable house,” she said.

Pajaro Middle School principal Juan Alcantar uses a megaphone to direct his students into the gym after school.
Pajaro Middle School principal Juan Alcantar uses a megaphone to direct his students into the gym after school while waiting for their school bus to pick them up.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

On Monday, President Joe Biden signed a major disaster declaration for Pajaro and other communities affected by the recent storms, opening up additional federal assistance to the community and its residents.

Mata says despite all the obstacles in their path, her students are pushing through them and want to do well. But she worries they’re doing it for her because of the expectations she’s established for the class. And she’s concerned about the long-term effects on her students from so much devastation.

“I think it’s so heartbreaking to see a community that wasn’t really valued before, continue to not be valued. I can’t speak to how wonderful these students are — they’re pushing through with a smile on their face,” she said. “And I appreciate all the support that is happening, but in the big scheme of things, I hope that we see this support continue in the next few years. Because this is not something that students can forget so easily.”

A sign at Lakeview Middle School in Watsonville welcomes students from Pajaro Middle School.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)