Local preschool teachers receive community hero award and fight to keep their schools open
The go-to source for Santa Cruz statistics was released last month. Along with providing a plethora of data, the Santa Cruz County Community Assessment Project Report (CAP) honors dedicated citizens who contribute to the community’s social health. This year, a group of teachers from a network of parent-interactive preschools have received recognition for their betterment of early education. But, honors aside, the preschools are facing economic woes that threaten their survival.
The CAP Report is an annual almanac that reports the x, y and z’s of Santa Cruz County. Since 1994, the report has supplied citizens with raw data concerning a variety of community interests, such as public safety, health and education.
Every five years, the CAP team also polls a cross section of community members to develop a set of community goals that aim for social enrichment of the community. The project selects “community heroes” based on their dedication and local activism towards these stated goals, according to Amalia Ellis, the administrative services coordinator of United Way of Santa Cruz, the organization behind the CAP Report.
This year’s community heroes include a group of teachers from the three sister schools that comprise the county’s Parent Education Nursery Schools (PENS) system. This group of teachers has more than 150 years of combined teaching experience among them, according to the CAP website. They were selected for their commitment to Education Goal #3: “By the year 2010, more schools will have a pre-kindergarten program available for all children.” Ellis notes that this group has been dedicated to pre-kindergarten education for an extended period of time. The other two goals for education this year were to have more students working at grade level, and to have more students ready for college and transfer-ready from community colleges into four-year colleges and universities.
At the three PENS campuses located throughout Santa Cruz County, education goes beyond typical classroom structure in which there is one teacher and a flock of children. The PENS schools have a system that includes parent involvement in the classroom, giving each child more individual attention.
“It’s a program where parents work in classrooms with kids,” says Wendy Wyckoff, one of the recipients of the Community Hero award and a teacher at Santa Cruz PENS (SCPENS). “The parents are learning educational skills as well as doing experimental work involved in an education program … I believe that being able to work directly with the parents, sets the tone for how the family runs and helps parents make good connections with their kids.” Wyckoff, who has worked for PENS for the past 17 years and in adult education for 24 years, adds, “It’s an honor to be honored for serving the community.”
Despite the PENS mission to integrate adult and preschool education and their presence in the community for upwards of 60 years, these schools face looming closure. This spring, the PENS community found out that due to a redistribution of funds in the Santa Cruz City School District and the ongoing state budget crisis, the funding they receive for adult education would be cut. The three schools, Soquel PENS, SCPENS and Westside PENS, managed to remain open through this year thanks to a rapid-fire fundraising drive and the support of loyal parents and community members.
To stay open, the PENS have had to make some sacrifices in addition to what Myckoff describes as “fundraising like crazy.” Teachers’ hours have been cut and a small tuition increase has been placed upon the families whose parents and children attend the schools.
Luckily for PENS, the program’s commitment to enriching nursery school education has galvanized its supporters and ignited activism among the parents of the program. A group of these dedicated parents and followers of the program set up a website, 3pens.org, that encourages people to “be a hero” and provide donations to ensure that children and parents can enjoy the benefits of the program for years to come.
The whirlwind fundraising of 3PENS also extends beyond the confines of the web. On Dec. 9, it hosted an alumni event called “The Real Superheroes” at the Seymour Center. The event celebrated the teachers’ recognition as community heroes and encouraged members of the 3PENS community to become “the real superheroes” by ensuring the program’s viability. If 3PENS can raise $25,000 in donations, an anonymous donor will match the amount.
Because of the activism and concern about the program’s closure, Wyckoff says that the schools will definitely be able to remain open through the year. She notes however, that with trepidation the program’s security is not ensured and that they are “not out of the woods.”