By Nadia Drake

SANTA CRUZ -- In the wake of severe budget cuts, community members are rallying to keep local heroes a part of Santa Cruz classrooms.

Thursday, a fundraiser will be held to support three preschools that came together last year to combat anticipated funding shortages. Earlier this year, the Santa Cruz City schools district was forced to eliminate funds for the programs. Now known as "3PENS," the schools are the Westside, Santa Cruz and Soquel Parent Education Nursery Schools -- unique in that they teach parents how to be better parents while simultaneously providing a preschool experience for youngsters.

The heroes? The seven teachers on staff at the three nursery schools, all of whom were recently named "Community Heroes" by the United Way. The majority of proceeds from Thursday's fundraiser will help pay for teacher salaries, with the remainder going toward purchasing supplies. 3PENS has received an anonymous, $25,000 challenge grant -- meaning they will only receive that amount if they can raise an additional $25,000. They hope to accomplish that this week.

"Not all superheroes wear capes," said Lynn Madden, parent and co-president of the Santa Cruz PENS board. "These teachers build incredible bonds with families. The kids remember them and talk about them years later."

A community fixture for more than 60 years, the nursery schools have seen approximately 18,000 children between the ages of 1 and 5 come through their classrooms, Madden said. She also estimated that around 150 families are spread between the three schools.

"That's a big ripple effect into the elementary schools," Madden said, pointing out the benefits of having children in kindergarten who are versed in skills like conflict resolution and playing appropriately -- and parents who are ready to jump into the classroom and help out. Indeed, many PENS families remain closely involved in their child's education well beyond the preschool years, she said.

The schools produce these results by functioning like a co-op. Parents accompany their children to class once a week, work at the school and attend monthly seminars on topics like positive discipline. Tasks include laundry, cleaning bathrooms, setting up activities, supervising play time and making snacks.

"You're spending two and a half hours working with other people's kids, watching other parenting styles and finding tools that people are using," Madden said. "It's incredible to me how it operates."

Teachers instruct parents about critical topics like child development, in addition to providing a safe, hands-on environment in which to practice skills.

"Parents don't normally have access to that really deep, experiential learning about being a parent," said Westside PENS parent Randy Wildera. "They start to blossom and express their creativity with the children. You see childhood from a much broader perspective."

A typical day in the classroom consists of a welcome circle, followed by almost three hours of free time, structured activities, story time, snack time and a closing circle, according to Westside PENS teacher Jeanne Carriere.

"Everybody is contributing work. Every family is dynamically involved in running every aspect of the preschool," Carriere said. "People are putting in a lot of time and effort and love to be here with their children."

Carriere has taught at the school since 1994, and said there's no place else she'd rather be.

"I love my job," she said, adding that one of her favorite parts of teaching is watching both kids and parents grow in confidence, while enjoying spontaneity and the sense of wonder that comes with learning.

Carriere attributes much of the program's success to the building of a community in the classroom.

"I started as a parent at the Soquel co-op back in early 90s and I know those are still the people I could call in the middle of the night."

She says families stay connected, even decades later, and the shared experiences and parenting philosophies form a glue that keeps people in touch.

"These families really do stay connected forever," she said.