Tonya B., of Denver, goes to her daughter’s preschool once a month. She isn’t there to observe, she’s there to assist the teacher. “I love getting to spend this time with her,” says Tonya, who is one of thousands of parents nationwide who actively participate in their child’s education via a cooperative (co-op) preschool setting. Members of parent-operated co-op schools praise the hands-on learning environment, dedicated parental involvement, and affordability, but is a co-op preschool right for your family?
What is a Cooperative Preschool?
In many ways, a co-op preschool is just like a traditional preschool: classes are held for children ranging in ages from two to five; class sessions are two to three hours long and are held two to three days a week. A paid teacher oversees and instructs the class. What makes co-ops different is that all activities pertaining to the school’s operations are in the hands of the parents; there are no paid administrators or assistants. Parents are required to give a set amount of their time each school year by serving as classroom parent helpers and committee members. The school’s administrative tasks are overseen by a board of directors comprised of elected parent members.
Parent volunteer hours, as well as the type of volunteer duties, vary from school to school, but typically parent helpers spend one day per month helping to set up classroom activities, supplying drinks and snacks for the day (and occasionally school supplies), supervising children, and cleaning up. Families with more than one enrolled student are required to give more of their time. “Chloe looks forward to the days when I’m the parent helper because it means she’s the student helper of the day too,” says Tonya. “She helps with the snacks, opens the door for class to begin, and rings the bell. It’s a big deal for her.” Tonya says parent helpers are careful not to focus too much on their own children and are good about spending time with all students.
Most co-ops also require parental participation on committees, such as fund-raising and membership, and some ask for group help with the school’s maintenance, such as cleaning the school on a Saturday or mowing the lawn. The co-op preschool that Tonya’s daughter attends assigns “Parent Jobs” for the school year. Tonya is in charge of the teacher’s library and helps by shelving books, checking out books to teachers, and categorizing new books. “It requires a small investment of time, and I’m able to do some of the work at home,” says Tonya.
The Pros and Cons of Cooperative Preschools
The pluses of parental involvement. At first, the time commitment required by co-op schools can seem daunting, but members say the positives far outweigh any perceived negatives. “My husband and I thought it sounded like a huge amount of time when we first checked out the school, but it really has not been a burden in any way,” says Tonya who adds that the co-op has “built a sense of community” for her family.
Christine Turo-Shields, a psychotherapist who counsels children, adults and families, and whose second child is enrolled in an Indiana co-op preschool, claims the cooperative structure “trains parents to become involved in their child’s education early and sets children’s expectations that their parents will be involved in their education.” Turo-Shields currently serves as her co-op’s vice president of membership and has been involved with the co-op for five years, two of which she's worked as board president. “We expect our parents to enrich the play of children; they’re not at the school for crowd control,” says Turo-Shields who notes parent volunteers at her child’s school must undergo a six-hour classroom participation training course.
Reduced expenses equal reduced tuition. While enrolling your child in a co-op might mean giving a little more of your time, it also will mean giving a little less of your money. Thanks to parental involvement, school fees are kept at a minimum and salaries generally are paid to only two or three employees. This reduction in expenses means reduced tuition fees.
No accreditation or teacher certification. Unlike traditional preschools, which must be accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, co-op preschools do not have to be accredited and are not governed by a national organization. Some, like the Indiana co-op the Turo-Shields children attend, are members of state co-op councils, but such participation is not mandatory. In addition, although co-op teachers undergo training, they do not have to hold college degrees (in education or any other subject), and they generally are not certified to teach.
Finding a Cooperative Preschool
Turo-Shields calls co-ops “a well-kept community secret,” and says word-of-mouth often brings parents to their school. “Ask around and find out where other parents take their kids,” she says. “Take the time to visit the preschools and meet with the teachers.” Some co-op schools have websites, but with no national oversight organization, locating a co-op preschool online can be difficult. Most co-ops are listed in the local phone directories along with traditional preschools. Several friends recommended the co-op preschool to Tonya, but it was her visit that prompted her to enroll Chloe. “The co-op director met with me one-on-one, and I was impressed with the school’s strong community feel and closeness,” says Tonya.
Like other cooperatives—credit unions, housing co-ops and food warehouses—cooperative preschools aren’t right for everyone. But if you’re able to give a little of your time each month and are looking for a quality, affordable learning environment for your pre-kindergartner, a co-op preschool may be worth your family’s investment.