A Watsonville High School student group laments online courses, a perceived lack of counselors and police presence. (Stephen Baxter — Santa Cruz Local)
WATSONVILLE >> Fabi Torres-Alvarez is a Watsonville High School senior who plans to study business at Sacramento State University in the fall. After taking an Advanced Placement English language class remotely during her junior year, she was excited to get back in the classroom.
But for her entire senior year, she hasn’t had a permanent English teacher. After a series of long-term substitute teachers, she’s now enrolled in a video-based online course that has no textbook and no essay writing. It’s a course usually assigned to students who need to make up course credits after failing a conventionally-taught class. She fears that a lack of instruction will leave her unprepared for college-level English courses.
“It’s really annoying, because I’m not very good at English. It’s not my strong subject, but I still love reading, like learning about books, and not being able to experience an actual senior-level English class kind of really sucks,” said Torres-Alvarez.
Torres-Alvarez isn’t the only student pushed into online courses because of a teacher shortage. Watsonville High has four vacant teacher positions. Hiring and retaining teachers was difficult before the COVID pandemic started in 2020, teachers said.
Teacher vacancies are just one of the issues being protested by a group of Watsonville High students called Pajaro Valley Students for Change. Wednesday night, a group of six core members plans to address trustees of the Pajaro Valley Unified School District Board about problems from a lack of teachers, to a perceived lack of academic counselors, to concerns about a newly reinstated police program on campus.
Teacher vacancies have been a problem in Pajaro Valley Unified School District before the pandemic, said Watsonville High history teacher Travis Walker.
“I have a senior student this year who made the comment that she has never had a [permanent] math teacher for the three years of math that she took during high school,” Walker said. The student had substitute teachers, some of whom administered online courses.
Walker said low salaries are to blame for persistent teacher vacancies. “The simple fact is that teachers can’t afford to live here, especially the young ones.” Teacher salaries start at $50,666 before taxes, according to the school district’s salary schedule.
“A lot of turnover in the district is young teachers who come and for a year or two — the pay is very bad at the bottom of the pay scale—and just get priced out and leave,” Walker said. “I’m in my fourth year here in the district. I have a master’s degree, and I spend over 60% of my income on rent,” Walker said.
Teacher shortages have been a problem throughout California. It is also driven by long-time educators who retire and insufficient state money to raise salaries, school administrators have said.
“I’m not saying that it’s a problem they could just solve tomorrow. They don’t have all the money to make that happen,” said Walker. “But it definitely is not as much of a priority in the district as I believe it should be, given the huge impact that it has on students.” Walker said. “It is personally frustrating to watch my students have to advocate to have literally the bare minimum services that should be provided at a school.”
Pajaro Valley School District Superintendent Michelle Rodriguez said the district is making efforts to attract new teachers. “PVUSD provides the highest take-home pay with benefits in the area,” Rodriguez wrote in an email. “As part of ensuring that we do not have any vacancies next year, we are providing up to $7,500 in signing bonus for both Watsonville High School and Pajaro Valley High School. With the signing bonus, we have filled almost all of Watsonville High School vacancies for next year.”
Lack of counselors
Although more mental health staff have been added in the school district recently, the group of Watsonville High students said they need more support.
“Students are really struggling to find mental health care, especially coming out of the pandemic,” said Watsonville High senior Lucía Umeki-Martínez. “Anxiety and depression rates are way high amongst the student body. And we have a really hard time accessing socio-emotional support on campus.”
Watsonville High has about 2,300 students, one social-emotional counselor and three mental health clinicians, administrators said. “For the 20221-2022 school year, we significantly increased the number of mental health staff within Pajaro Valley Unified School District,” wrote Rodriguez, the school district superintendent, in an email. “We now have 16 mental health clinicians within the district, an increase of 210%, and 17 social emotional counselors, an increase of 55%.”
Walker, the Watsonville High history teacher, said they need more mental health professionals. “The district has been slowly increasing [mental health services] throughout the district, but it’s nowhere close to meeting the students’ need for mental health services, which in Watsonville High School is so dramatic,” said Walker. “Students have come back from the pandemic in need of a lot of support, and we are nowhere close to meeting the need for that support.”
Umeki-Martínez says the district also doesn’t provide enough academic counselors, leaving many students unsure of their readiness to graduate.
“Our (academic) counselors are extremely overloaded with the amount of students that they have. It’s really hard to meet their academic counselors and figure out if you’re on track to graduate and on track to fulfill your A through G requirements [for admission to California public universities], so the students can go off to college and higher education.”
For its roughly 2,300 students, Watsonville High has seven academic counselors, Rodriguez said. Five additional counselors and four interns also work with Watsonville High students through a contract with UC Santa Cruz.
Police on campus
Some Watsonville High students also expressed concern about the presence of police officers on campus as part of the district’s school resources officer program. Umeki-Martínez, a senior, said the officer contributes to an intimidating atmosphere on campus, particularly to people of color.
In July 2020, school district trustees eliminated the program and used the money to hire socio-emotional counselors. But after a student was stabbed to death on the Aptos High School campus in August 2021, trustees reinstated the program and paired an officer with a mental health worker at Watsonville High School and Aptos High School.
Pajaro Unified trustees voted unanimously on May 11 to continue the program and expand it to Pajaro Valley High School. The program will cost $1.2 million over the next year, according to a district report.
“The district is paying an obscene amount of money to have [the Student Resource Officer] here, literally out of our own pockets, which would be way more beneficial towards mental health support, which is what we really need,” said Umeki-Martínez.
Rodriguez, the superintendent, pointed to a survey of students and parents this school year that showed support for the school resource officer. In a district survey of students and family members who had contact with the officers, 71% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that the interaction was “respectful and positive.” In a survey of about 600 students, 53% felt comfortable having an officer at the school, the survey stated. The survey was shared during a May 11 school board meeting.
Of students surveyed, 9.5% said the officer’s presence distracted them from schoolwork, and 4% said they were uncomfortable having the officer on campus.
Umeki-Martínez and a group of about six students have presented a list of grievances to district administrators. They plan to address the district trustees at the Wednesday meeting. Rodriguez said she received the email and has requested to meet with the students “to hear and address their concerns.”
To participate: Trustees of the Pajaro Valley Unified School District will meet at 7 p.m., Wednesday, May 25 at the District Office Boardroom, 292 Green Valley Road, Watsonville. The meeting also will be streamed online.
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Jesse Kathan is an environmental journalist and a graduate of UC Santa Cruz's science communications program. Kathan has contributed to the Mercury News, Monterey County Weekly and KSQD-FM.