Three Santa Cruz preschool co-ops fight to remain open
On Tuesday, May 18, uncertainty filled the classroom as the parents of Soquel Parent Education Nursery School (Soquel PENS) congregated for their last monthly parent meeting of the school year—and what might be their last meeting ever.
Soquel PENS is a preschool co-op with two sister schools, Westside PENS (WPENS) and Santa Cruz PENS (SCPENS). The schools have been a part of the Santa Cruz community for decades, ranging from 35 years to 61 years in operation. “There are grandmothers that went there before their daughters. And now their daughters’ daughters are going there,” says Matthew Kirk-Williams, father of 4-year-old Logan, who attends Soquel PENS.
Today, all three schools are struggling to remain open for a future generation of children. In the past, the schools received funding from the state as part of the Adult Education Program, which was based on parents’ attendance in the classroom. But faced with a $5.2 million deficit, the Santa Cruz City School Board decided on March 3 to cut every program in Adult Education. This included eliminating funding for the three PENS schools. The seven teachers at WPENS, SCPENS, and Soquel PENS received their pink slips earlier this month.
Facing closure, the parents and teachers are fighting to keep their schools open through fundraising efforts. For many months, the Santa Cruz City School Board reassured teachers and parents that despite the cuts, preschools would remain untouched. “Many of us felt misled and intimidated,” Susie O’Hara, WPENS parent and head of the fundraising committee, told Good Times via e-mail. “Now we have to try to raise 200 grand with two weeks left in the school year. It has been truly devastating to our community of parents.”
Soquel PENS and its sister schools are not simply an unloading dock for children as parents rush off to work, nor are the schools bent on manufacturing prodigy children. Parents enroll in the city’s Adult Education Program and come once a week to assist the teacher in the classroom and learn more about their children as they begin to interact with and make sense of the world.
“Our program gives parents the stability to stay in touch with their kids,” says Kimberly Woodland, who has been teaching at Soquel PENS for four years and is affectionately referred to by both the students and the parents as Teacher Kim.
For Kirk-Williams, the children aren’t the only ones learning in the classroom. “We’re all learning to be the parents we want to be, finding out what works, what doesn’t work,” he says. “You don’t find this learning experience anywhere else.”
Evoking the meaning of “it takes a village to raise a child,” parents learn how to not only raise their own children, but others as well. “It’s the closest thing I have in my life to a village,” says Marika Riggs, Soquel PENS parent and president of Soquel PENS’ board. “Our kids need so much growing up, and they get to have relationships with so many different adults who are great parents.” With an average classroom ratio of one adult for every three kids, each child’s needs are individually met with ample attention. Parents and teachers encourage self-discovery by engaging the children in various activities that range from arts and crafts and science experiments to dress-up and story telling. “Children learn through play. There’s a lot of freedom to explore,” says Nancy Samsel, who has been at Soquel PENS for eight years, where she goes by Teacher Nancy.
“We have the ability to start our kids off this way at the preschool level and help them have a better experience, which sets their whole tone,” says Lisa, Logan Kirk-Williams’ mother. “They decide something about themselves when they’re in school. And I’ve seen the kids who decide ‘education is going to be something great in my life,’ and I’ve seen the kids who decided it isn’t.” In light of the budget cuts to education, the parents fear that more kids will fall in the latter category.
“It just seems like there’s a lot of other places you could cut,” says Lisa. “It’s a little over $50,000 in operation costs for a whole preschool. We do our own janitorial. We buy our own supplies. We run the board. That’s why it’s cheap and we want to keep it cheap.”
To keep their schools open and affordable for the next school year, they hope to raise $200,000 in their ongoing fundraising campaign. They are sending letters out to past alumni, and have also received a matching grant from an anonymous donor. In addition, they hope to sell 5,000 tickets for a car raffle, which will generate half of the money the need to stay open.
If they are able to raise enough money to remain open for next year, they will start a grant- writing committee, which they hope will sustain their community for the following years.
Back at the meeting, Logan is bouncing from the lap of one parent to another. A baby is being held and coddled by various parents as they watch a slideshow of the past school year. It shows photos of kids face-painting parents, school outings to a farm, Teacher Kim at story time, and Teacher Nancy animating her puppets. Many parents are teary-eyed as they reflect upon another year that has come and gone, and the incredibly transient nature of childhood. And then there is the hovering sadness that this might be a more permanent end—that this place might really be gone for good. “This place gave our kids what we couldn’t see, what we didn’t even know they needed,” remarks one parent. “It gave us a foundation that’s going to stay with me forever.”