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July 10, 2020

Navigating Watsonville’s skeptics

By John Flaherty, vice-chair of Navigator Schools’ Board of Directors

Sharon Waller, the co-founder of Navigator public, nonprofit charter schools, grew up in Watsonville. Her grandmother worked at Ford’s Department store. She took Sharon to lunch next door at the Woolworths. 

Sharon Waller is a third-generation graduate of Watsonville High School (Class of ’79). After graduating college as a teacher, she returned home and started teaching in the Pajaro Valley Unified School District (PVUSD).

She met James Dent, the vice-principal of Ann Soldo Elementary School. They started a seven-year conversation on how to create a school that would increase student performance. In 2011, they opened Gilroy Prep, a nonprofit, public charter school in Gilroy.

Gilroy Prep’s students were primarily Title I and English language learners. The improvement in their scores was staggering. Tom Vander Ark, an author/educator wrote, “Gilroy Prep School’s first year API of 978 may have been the highest first-year API in the history of California.”  Soon, students began getting higher scores than kids at the traditional public schools up in wealthy Palo Alto.

Navigator opened another school in Hollister. Student performance improved there, too. Hollister Prep co-located with a local elementary school. Dr. Gary McIntire, the former Hollister superintendent said, “HPS and Navigator Schools proved to be great partners for R.O. Hardin School and HSD. Together they have fulfilled the promises they made to be collaborative partners with the District and its schools… and the benefits to the students enrolled at HPS have been consistently demonstrated each year since the school began operations.”

Dent and Waller always wanted to take their success back to Watsonville. Support from local parents was strong. Parents who had janitorial and restaurant jobs at night would support other parents so they could take time off and speak in support of the proposed school.

PVUSD board members opposed opening WPS. Not letting facts get in the way of a political narrative, they voted no. So did the county board of education—even though its professional staff recommended a yes. One PVUSD board member told Navigator it didn’t specialize in music or art. “You’re saying you do well because students do well.”

Well, right. Our students close the achievement gap. They learn compassion and cooperation.  Yes, Navigator does well because our students do well.

The state Board of Education had the clarity to follow state law and ruled our nonprofit, public charter school could open. Watsonville Prep opened its doors in August 2019.

Last week, this paper ran an opinion piece essentially arguing Prop. 39 was an archaic law, and Navigator—a public charter school—should return public money. It should also vacate the trailers PVUSD provided them.

It went on to say Navigator lied to parents and duped them into sending their kids to Watsonville Prep. It also called parents “selfish” for sending their children there. You can ascribe many motivations to a mom and dad working three jobs between them, and still making less than a Pajaronian general assignment reporter. But calling them selfish for wanting their child to get a great educational opportunity and maybe be the first in their family to go to college isn’t one of them.

So, here’s our message to our students, their parents, our supporters, and the Watsonville community—our community. Navigator isn’t going anywhere. And it will continue to put the public monies it receives from the state to good use. 

The new Pajaronian managing editor, Tony Nuñez, wrote an introductory column last July. Reading it, one can see his deep roots in the community, and his commitment to making Watsonville a city to be proud of.  He wrote of his “. . . hope that the next generation will be raised with a sense of respect for this city and its community, and demand more from the people in power.”

As members of his—and our—community, Navigator intends to do the same. 

I’ve also known the owner of the Pajaronian, Dan Pulcrano, for nearly 30 years. Pulcrano’s newspapers have a strong record of building community, and pushing leaders to exceed the status quo. We intend to do that too. With the PVUSD, we want to teach Watsonville students to exceed the status quo.

Last month, our Gilroy school was named a California Distinguished School. It’s a big deal. 

The Gilroy Prep principal, Crystal Toriumi (Watsonville High ’00) invited Gilroy School District Superintendent Deborah Flores, to the ceremony. “We are a public charter school,” said Toriumi.  “We are partners with GUSD, and we were proud to have her there.”

In the near future, Watsonville Prep will win a California Distinguished School Award. We’ll invite the PVUSD Superintendent to join us at the ceremony.

We’ll also invite the Pajaronian’s Tony Nuñez. We hope the education reporter will cover it. After all, the Pajaronian is our local newspaper.

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John Flaherty is the vice-chair of Navigator Schools’ Board of Directors, a nonprofit organization operating the three public charter schools mentioned in this opinion piece. Contact Flaherty at [email protected]

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