Chula Vista has a new elementary school — and a new free meals program

As school districts across the county continue to open for the fall semester, there is excitement and uncertainty about being back on campus.

Fahari L. Jeffers Elementary just opened in the Chula Vista Elementary School District, with 350 students on the Otay Ranch campus. It is named after a local legend.

“She was an amazing dynamic woman: a former Black Panther and a civil rights leader,” Principal Shawna Codrington said.

Jeffers was a lifelong community activist and a labor leader who is best known for her role in founding the United Domestic Workers of America, the third union in US history founded by people of color.

The state-of-the-art school is equipped to support children who have survived the coronavirus pandemic and other challenges.

That includes food insecurity.

The newly implemented California Universal Meals program offers free food to every student, no matter their need. The state law also pays for upgraded school kitchens and staff training.

“It means everything and more and here’s why: If students don’t have healthy food to eat, then they don’t learn well,” Codrington said. “In order for them to learn and do their best, they have to have healthy meals.”

The 17 teachers on campus are on the front line of educating and reconnecting students to a more familiar in-person classroom setting after two years of virtual learning.

Jenna Toth teaches sixth grade. “We were some of the most consistent things they saw, and, for some of them, the only outside connections that they had,” Toth said. “So they needed us then, and they needed us to come back to.”

Julie Huezo has taught in the Chula Vista district for 23 years. This fall, she is teaching Jeffers’ new Transitional Kindergarten students, who are as young as 4 years old. It’s a new beginning in her veteran career.

“All of the mistakes that they made in building schools years ago, they’ve figured it all out and they’ve improved everything,” Huezo said. “We’re creating humans that are going to grow up and make a difference in the world,” she added.

Julia Watkins teaches a second- and third-grade combination class of students. She is also a veteran South Bay educator. “I think this is the new normal,” she told KPBS News. “When we tell the kids to mask up, they’re ready. Some kids come with masks; others do not. It’s very normalized in the classroom.”

Parents are now participating more in activities on campus. Jaycee Toro has two children at the new school. She supports the administration and staff and is proud of all the students who worked hard to keep up with their studies.

“They have reasons for why they feel the way they do and express those. They are more than kids, they’re people with thoughts, feelings and opinions about everything that’s happened to them,” Toro said.

So far the reviews on the new buildings and campus are good from the people who matter most, such as second-grade student Isabella, who told KPBS: “They’re very amazing along with the play structure. The builders did a really nice job .”

Jeffers is the 50th campus in the Chula Vista Elementary School District, which is the largest elementary district in the state.

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