When my daughter was in a professionally run preschool, I followed the usual preschool-par- ent ritual: I would walk her into school, sign her in, maybe chat briefly with the teacher, kiss my daughter on the head, and leave. I knew I was an involved parent, confident that mychild was being cared for by a professional staff.
But now I’m at a co-op pre- school. I not only bring my daugh- ter into the school, I also stay to put out theplaydough, see if any laundry needs to be washed, sit down with the other kids to color for a bit, and talk to the other par- ents. If it’s my work day, I sling my job card around my neck and get ready to teach or clean or prepare the snack. I never knew how involved I could be.
But co-oping is not for everyone. You have to ask yourself, am I willing to teach, play, clean, prepare food, fund raise, be around young kids,know the other parents, and take responsibility for the school? If you say yes, then you should consider a co-op.
What is a Co-op?
A co-op, short for cooperative, is an organization that is owned or managed by the members of the group. The first co-op preschool in the United States was founded in 1916 at the University of Chicago. The founding mothers’ goal was to pool their resources to create a child care pro- gram thatwould allow them to participate in the war effort.
A co-op preschool is usually a non-profit organiza- tion. A professional teacher, director, and/or staff is often employed, but parents are reliedupon to run the school.
“I have 50 different jobs for 50 different families,” says Cammy Arnold, director of the Burbank Parent Cooperative Preschool in San Lorenzo. “Every parent works one day in the classroom each week and they also have a job at the school. We have the treasurer who pays thebills, the financial secretary who brings in the money, the parent in charge of fundraising, someone who is in charge of laundry, someone who pulls the weeds, rinses out the paintbrushes, does the shopping, puts the gro- ceries away. We rely on parents a lot.”
Parents participate during the preschool day, at regu- larly scheduled night meetings, on work-party days, and occasionally during off-hours for special projects. All this participation keeps down the cost of running a school – a key benefit to many parents. This benefit is even moreattractive now that our economy is facing such a wide- spread downturn and affecting so many families.
Cammy Arnold has noticed this trend. “We are attracting a whole different demographic of people. Our co-op program used to be mostly low income. But now several of my parents are teachers or other higher income families that are choosing this program because the econ- omy is sobad they can’t afford a full-time preschool. And they love the experience so much that they are making arrangements to stay in the co-op even after they are able to go back to work.”
Co-op preschools range in complexity. They can be as simple as a group of friends meeting on a regular basis and providing activities for theirchildren, or as structured as a professionally run preschool. A number of co-op preschools are offered through local adult education pro- grams,and parents can earn school credit by participating.
Most co-op preschools have a component of educat- ing parents on early childhood development – a key dif- ference from standard preschools. The parent education is usually provided by the school’s director, who is often has an early childhood development background.Directors use the night meetings to discuss topics such as developmental stages and maturity, effective discipline, nutrition, enrichment,encouraging independence, and constructive socialization. Parents then use this knowl- edge to interact with the children at the school during their workdays. Schools often bring in guest speakers to pro- vide more depth on these and other topics.
Many parents feel that this education is one of the best benefits of being in a co-op.
Cammy Arnold agrees. “I was a parent in a co-op program 28 years ago
and came in with an attitude. I thought, ‘I am experienced, I have two children, what are these people going to teach me about parenting? Iknow what I’m doing.’ But I had no idea. I learned so much about myself and my child that it inspired me to get my degree in childdevelopment.”
Chantal Maher-Rajlich, a teacher at the San Anselmo Co-Op Nursery School concurs, “One of the biggest ben- efits is the fact that you get tobe here and learn alongside your child. The parents are learning from one another and our director – not only about their own child but otherchildren and children’s development.”
In fact, some preschools focus primarily on an adult education curriculum. Little Wonders, a parent-child co- operative in San Mateo, structures its program so that daytime meetings are actual learning sessions. Parents discuss various topics with the director while they observethe children playing in the classroom.
A Community for the 21st Century
Co-op preschools are, by their very nature, a close- knit community. This is something many people don’t nec- essarily expect when they get involved. Susan Hartwig, a parent at the Clayton Valley Parent Preschool in Concord, describes it this way: “I very much feel a part of a com-munity. I didn’t feel a part of the community before and I had been living here for four years.” Co-ops help parents connect to other parents andbuild a community.
Julia Chen, president of the Marin Council and a Finance North Board member of California Council of Parent Participation Nursery Schools (CCPPNS), agrees. “The benefit of being in a co-op is the network. It’s a par- ent community that you can linkinto during the first cou
ple of years of your child’s life. It’s amazing how many friends we make in this community. It’s great to know other parents and realize we are all going through the same process.”
For many parents, this closeness is something they need to get used to. But it can also be a very positive experience, reminding parents of the power of participation. And being a part of a co-op preschool creates a habit of involvement and volunteerism as well as a strong sense of community. Directors of co-op preschools men- tion over and over that they see their parents “graduate” from involvement at the preschool to involvement at the elementary school level.
Making a difference really is possible in this type of community, and Chantal Maher-Rajlich points out that this is also a part of the parent education process. “If there is ever a situation that comes up, we use it as an opportunity to learn about working together. Everyone has a voice and they each get an opportunity to share their opinions and collaborate together. The parents weigh out every option to make a decision.”
Connecting with Your Child
One of the most personally rewarding aspects of being in a co-op is the opportunity to be intimately involved with your children’s education andtheir day-to-day interactions with the other kids and parents at the school.
Julia Chen says, “It’s very different from regular childcare where you just drop your kid off. You actual- ly get to know every single kid thatyour child is going to school with, so there is a stronger bond.”
So, Is a Co-op Preschool Right for You?
Co-op participation can be highly rewarding. It creates a strong sense of community, provides parent education, and can give you avaluable connection with your children.
But all this comes with a commitment of time and energy. It is the parent’s participation that makes a co-op unique.
Some schools do allow a certain amount of “buy- out.” If parents are unable to fulfill some commitments, they can pay an extra fee. Butnot all schools offer this option, and it’s not available for all commitments. If parents are unable participate in the work days, night meetings, maintenance, and all the other extras need- ed to run the school, a co-op will quickly fall apart.
Susan Hartwig admits, “I was apprehensive of the amount of work, and I think a lot of parents are. There is no doubt that it’s going to be morethan a regular pre- school where you pay money and drop off your kids. But when it comes down to it, it’s about the same amount of time that youwould spend if you were real- ly involved in your regular preschool. In this way every- body gets to participate and you are a part of something biggerthan ourselves – that means a lot to me.”
Be prepared to make the commitment to your designated job, and also to getting involved in gener- al: to jump in and fill a need, whether it’s holding a board position or doing some extra laundry. You don’t have to have any special skills, but you need to be able to contribute whenand where you can.
So, if you are ready to teach, play, clean, prepare food, fund raise, be around young kids, know the other parents, and take responsibility for the school, then you are ready to join a co-op preschool.
What to Ask When Looking for a School
Here are some quick guidelines to determine if a school is right for your child and your family. (Many of these ideas apply to other types of preschools as well.)
- Always ask the basic questions about the phi- losophy of the school. How do they discipline children and resolve conflict? What are their goals in terms of childhood development? Make sure that the school’s values match yours. If you are interested in kindergarten readiness, the school should know the readiness guidelines and have programs to reach those
- Ask about the stability of the program. How long has the school been around? How long has the teacher been there? How long have the current families have been there?
- What exactly are the commitments in terms of work days, night meetings, fund raising, and tuition? What are the penalties if these commitmentsare not met? What are the policies around parents’ leaves of absence, illness, pregnancy? What sort of flexibility is offered when life changes occur? Makesure you are comfortable with these terms.
- What are the educational goals for the parents?
- Arrange to visit the school with your Any co-op should allow you to visit, either through a designated day or as a drop-in. Make sure that you are comfortable with the play area and classrooms and that your child seems comfortable as well. Talk to the other parents. You will beworking with them.
Now That You’re a Member
If you do decide to join a co-op, it is impor- tant to set appropriate expectations for yourself. Give yourself time to learn this new “job.” Ask to buddy with an experienced parent. Remember that it takes a lot of energy to deal with preschoolers, so always eat a good meal before your work shift.
When you first participate at the preschool, observe, observe, observe! If you’re not sure what a rule is, where something is kept, or why things are done a certain way, don’t be afraid to ask. Misinformation can spread like wildfire in co-ops because there are so many parents responsible forday-to-day management.
Be sure to respect the ground rules set down by the school – you have to be comfortable enough to enforce all the rules. Consistency isabsolutely critical with young children, and if you are not willing to abide by the rules agreed to at the school, you are going to be creating dif-ficulties for the children, yourself, the other par- ents, and the director.
As with regular schools, you can call any time to determine if there are any upcoming openings or a waiting list. The standard time to startapplying is February or March for the fol- lowing September. But because co-ops tend to be community-based and require so much time from parents,openings do happen throughout the year.
Most of all, remember to enjoy yourself and the kids. After all, that’s the reason to join a co-op.
The Next Step: Co-Op Elementary Schools
Many parents who are involved in co-op preschools send their children on to public elementary schools, but some do choose to continue with the co-op experience. Most things that are true about co-op preschools apply to co-op elementary schools as well, including a strong sense of community and a major time commitment.
Carol Elkovich, the enrollment co-chair at Crestmont Elementary School, a co-op in Richmond, says, “The members own the school and run the day-to-day administration. The parents work very collaboratively with the staff. The difference between the elementary school and preschool is we have a larger professional staff for the grade level and specialty teachers.” At Crestmont, the parents tap into the expertise of the teachers while actively nurturing a cooperative culture for every family involved.
This ability to drive decisions about culture, enrichment pro- grams, or excursions does require a commitment of time and energy from all families. A co-op elementary school is “every- thing you’d experience at a preschool co-op multiplied by 10,” says Karen Pojmann, a parent formerly at both a co-op preschool and Crestmont Elementary School. “Like more committees, longer meetings, and there’s a lot more staff involved.”
But as Carol Elkovich says, “We have a good percentage of people who are participators, and the amount of participation is a huge draw to the parents … most parents know every kid by name.” This relationship creates a strong sense of community, which is the same at the preschool and elementary.
The California Council of Parent Participation Nursery Schools (CCPPNS), founded in 1948, is a statewide organization of co-op preschools. While not all co-op preschools choose to belong to CCPPNS, over 320 schools representing more than 10,000 families are part of this organization.
The purpose of CCPPNS is similar to that of a local co-op: to create a community for the benefit of educating young children and to provide support to schools and families.
Says Julia Chen, president of the Marin Council and Finance Board North member of CCPPNS, “The benefit of a co-op preschool joining CCPPNS is you end up in this huge network of co-op schools. The directors and teachers have a whole community of other professionals they can share information and experiences with.”
CCPPNS provides a variety of benefits to its members. These include grants and interest-free loan eli- gibility, discounted group liability insurance, legislative updates and information, informational hand- books, space on the CCPPNS website, and a newsletter.
Every year, CCPPNS hosts a convention featuring workshops for teachers and parents.