WATSONVILLE—Watsonville’s newest charter school has moved into its new permanent location in the old Gottschalks building at 407 Main St., three years after opening at E.A. Hall Middle School.
All of Watsonville Prep’s classes—spanning from transitional kindergarten to fourth grade—are now held in the new space, a warren of classrooms, play areas and a small library in a mashup of school and modern office space.
The new school, run by Hollister-based Navigator Schools, opened its doors in 2019 with 180 students from kindergarten through second grade. The school plans to add one grade every year until fully operational in 2023 with 565 students. Once that happens, the school will consider staggered start and end times to accommodate the increased attendance.
The school features numerous giant windows that let in plenty of light, and two gymnasiums—one of which doubles as a multi-purpose play space and lunchroom—in addition to a small outdoor play area.
The space where the department store’s escalator once stood is now an atrium, whose windows look down on the unfinished space below. It is unclear what will take the downstairs space.
To move into the space, Navigator signed an agreement with the Hansen Family Trust—which owns the building—in early 2021. The school was then approved for a special use permit with the city of Watsonville, providing Watsonville Prep with a lease spanning 42 years, Director of Engagement & Partnerships Kirsten Carr says.
Carr says the Hansen family provided a “significant discount” of $1.6 million for the first five years of the lease, allowing the school to afford the space while it slowly grows to capacity.
Pajaro Valley Unified School District plans to open a Family Wellness Center in the space vacated by Watsonville Prep at E.A. Hall.
When Navigator came to PVUSD in 2018, it did so in a set of portable classrooms at the middle school. It expanded this year, with a third- and fourth-grade class at Ann Soldo Elementary School.
“We are really excited,” said principal Andrea Hernandez. “Especially having our whole team together coming from two sites, it’s been really fun to be back together. And it’s really been cool for our students to have a state-of-the-art site like this.”
Sharon Waller, one of the school’s founders, says the move into the old Gottschalks building—it also held Ford’s Department Store—is a “full-circle” chapter to a story that began when her grandmother worked in that store. Waller, who graduated from Watsonville High School in 1979, says she remembers visiting her grandmother in what is now one of the second-grade classrooms.
“It’s wonderful to be a local and see our Watsonville students being downtown here and knowing the future of Watsonville is based on all of our children,” she said. “Knowing we’re doing our part to help the city of Watsonville be better and better does my heart good. We need to invest our time in our children, and Watsonville deserves it.”
Waller says that one of her motivations for creating the school was for it to practice a “full inclusion” model, meaning that any student with any disability is included in the regular classroom and is not placed in special day classes.
“It was my dream to have a school where all the kids are included in the process,” she said.
When school leaders presented the schools charter to the PVUSD Board of Trustees in 2018, they cited low test scores within the district and said they could offer families a new and better educational choice. Those assertions were disputed by PVUSD leaders, but backed up by numerous families who came to support the charter school and asked the trustees to approve it.
Waller says she was largely motivated by seeing students reading at low levels in public schools.
“We’re setting up kids for success,” she said.
Watsonville Prep is an independent charter school, and as such is not governed by the PVUSD Board of Trustees. Because of this, the management team can act more quickly than districts led by school boards, Waller says.
“Having a charter allows us to make decisions really quick in the moment and change what’s not working,” she says.
Navigator Schools CEO Kevin Sved says that the move will provide stability for the school’s students and families after they were separated into two locations.
“We are so grateful to the Hansen family for their generosity and commitment to the community of Watsonville,” Sved said. “We appreciated being able to work with them and the city of Watsonville to make this dream of creating a family-friendly downtown a reality.”
“I feel like we’re off to a strong start,” he says.
The PVUSD Board of Trustees rejected Navigator’s first charter proposal, as did the Santa Cruz County Office of Education on appeal. Both cited problems with Navigator’s education plan, and expressed concern about the financial impact the new school would have. The California Department of Education approved the charter in January 2019.
Waller praised the district for hosting the school while it searched for a permanent location.
“They have done nothing but been kind to us, despite how rough it was in the beginning,” she said.
Navigator, a nonprofit, already runs Gilroy Prep and Hollister Prep in those cities.
The move means that PVUSD is no longer financially responsible for providing classroom space for the school, says spokeswoman Alicia Jimenez.
For information, visit watsonvilleprep.org.