I've been receiving a lot of questions lately about cooperative preschools, how to start one, and in general asking for more insight into how cooperatives work. This is the third post in a series that I hope will address those questions. In that first post I gave my best shot at what I think would be the first steps to starting your own cooperative preschool. In the second post, I described the specifics of how our school works. In the third post I wrote about working with parents in the classroom. In this post I'm going to begin to answer some of your questions and tie up some loose ends, particularly regarding the history of cooperatives, where to find more information, parent education, and the scheduling parents.
If you're entirely unfamiliar with our model, please take a look at my Cooperative Manifesto in which I attempted back during the dawn of this blog to provide a sort of socio-economic-political context for what we do. And if you include this post, I will have now written 47 pieces on various aspects of what it's like working in a cooperative preschool, which you can find by either clicking on the "cooperative" tag in the right hand column under "Teacher Tom's Topics," or just clicking here. So, there's plenty of further reading should you really want to delve into what I've had to say on the topic so far.
The environment, which is the third teacher, is not only nature or the building -- organizational structure also has a critical effect on how a program operates and what can be done. The fabulous thing about this model is the way it generates a unity of purpose between the institution and the family. ~Siobhan Hannan
A cooperative preschool is imperfect, as are all schools, indeed all institutions. They are imperfect because they are expressions of us, and humans are flawed. So we do the best we can, trying to organize ourselves to do the things we need to do together.
It is in fact true that at least once a year, a parent meetings will run "off the tracks." By that I mean spill over the confines of the agenda and cause the meeting to run well past our official 9 p.m. end time. As a deeply democratic institution, with each family an equal stakeholder, it's important that we have the opportunity to speak and sometimes takes more time that we'd originally hoped. It can get heated, after all we're dealing with people's children, perhaps the most emotion-triggering thing on the planet. More often it gets tedious as a small, committed group gets a little too much into the weeds on what seems to them a huge issue, but to everyone else is a bit of a yawner. But come on, we're on schedule 80-90 percent of the time. There aren't many democratic institutions that can make that claim.
It is in fact true that some people work harder than others. Board members, in particular, putting in at least triple the hours of the typical co-op parent, often way more. And every year there are a few families that for whatever reason can only manage a minimum contribution. If you don't accept that this is also a communistic enterprise, and you're one of those with "abilities," co-op can be a frustrating experience. This is one of the reasons I urge families to think of Woodland Park as a 3-year preschool program. In any given year, yours may be the family with abilities or the one with needs, but chances are that over the course of 3 years you'll find yourself in both positions. Although hopefully you'll never be the one with the needs because that always sucks worse.
And yes, it is in fact true that not every parent in a cooperative is good with the kids. Naturally, everyone is good with their own children, in their way, but it's not unheard of that parents arrive in co-op with very little natural affinity for or understanding of young children. But most of us do have skills or learn skills from our parent educator or Teacher Tom or more often than not from each other over our 3 years together. In this way we are more than a school for children: we are a community of learners.
A little history
Today there are thousands of cooperative preschools across the US and Canada, yet as Lesley from the Takoma Park Cooperative Nursery School in Maryland wrote, "(c)ooperatives usually get a paragraph in education text books."
I'm not sure why our model is so little known. Maybe it's because throughout most of our history we've simply been the domain of moms getting together to raise their kids, teach them a little something for a few years, then move on as the kids grow up: flying under the radar. The cynical part of me wants to say that it's quite typical for the history of women and families to be underwritten, but it's also true that the cooperative movement is not about building large, enduring institutions, or creating elaborate core curricula, or promoting a particular philosophy of child development or teaching or parenting, or any of the other kinds of things that typically get you a few more pages in text books. What makes us unique is our organizational structure, as Siobhan points out in the quote at the top of this post, which is not as often seen as being as central to education.
Whatever the case, Leslie sent me this link to a brief history of cooperative preschools, the first of which was founded in 1916 by a group of faculty wives from the University of Chicago. The oldest continually running co-op is The Children's Community Center, founded in 1927 in Berkley, California. Apparently, the 1940's was a time of great growth for the cooperative movement, with schools springing up across the US and Canada, including the schools that formed the basis of the system in which I now teach in Seattle, Washington. (I've been told that ours is the oldest continually running co-op system in the world, but I have no way to support that assertion.) According to this article co-ops popped up during this period in other countries as well, including New Zealand (under the moniker "play centres") and in Great Britain ("preschool playgroups").
Until Leslie sent me this link, I was unaware of Parent Cooperative Preschools International, a non-profit membership organization set up to support cooperative preschools around the world. For those of you who asked me about further reading, you might want to check out their resources page.
One of the fascinating aspects of our particular system of some 40 individual co-ops is that all but one of our current teachers are former cooperative parents. The last time I checked, the same could be said of the parent educators employed by North Seattle Community College. One might say we have a kind of informal apprenticeship program going on here in which each of us learn at the feet of a master, then go on to teach future teachers. (So far two Woodland Park parents have gone on to teach their own cooperative classes upon their children's graduation.)
While there are no credentialing requirements for the teachers in our schools, the parent educators not only have completed all the classroom work, then also have decades of experience both as teachers and educators. The primary function of our educators is to be a resource to both parents and the classroom teacher. They run a monthly class for parents, typically on topics the parents themselves have chosen, and participate in the classroom on a weekly basis. They also sit on our board in an advisory capacity.
When I first started teaching, my educators served the role of mentor for me. As I've gained experience, I've come to consider them as indispensable partners and my go-to person when I'm stuck or when my emotions are geting in the way of my ability to be an effective teacher.
Different educators approach their roles differently, especially when it comes to their classroom time. Many just drop to their knees and get busy with the kids, chatting with adults over their heads, answering simple questions, role modeling good teaching practice, and generally helping out as a kind of "super parent," only leaving the room for private conversations when necessary. Others prefer to stay focused on the adults in the room, stepping into corners or out in to the hallway to have one-on-one conversations with parents as needed.
If the parent educator's classroom time is when parents can get their individual concerns and questions addressed (although the educators are also available via email or phone), our parent meetings are when we can get on the same page with over-arching issues like pedagogy, teaching techniques, speaking informatively with young children, dealing with conflict, developmentally appropriate behavior, and a host of other teaching-related matters. Typically, the educator and I will sort of tag-team much of this, especially as it applies specifically to our classroom.
Scheduling of parents
I often think that one of the most unappreciated parent jobs in our school is that of the scheduler. As you can imagine, juggling the classroom work schedules of 20+ adults isn't easy. Ideally, parents are sorted by work day at the beginning of the year, spread out evenly over the week, becoming in our informal parlance "a Monday parent" or "a Thursday parent," etc. On each day, there are 6 parent-lead stations (snack, blocks, art, sensory, drama, table toys) and the parents rotate through those stations according to a schedule prepared by the scheduler. All of our schedules are available to parents online, so everyone should know in advance at which station they are working that day, but just in case we also post it on the wall just outside the classroom.
If that were all of it, the scheduler's job would be hard enough, but every year parents need to switch work days, or take maternity leave, or have other events come up in their lives that require our scheduler to scramble to fill in gaps. If a parent is ill or otherwise needs to miss a work day, however, it is that parent's responsibility to find a substitute parent.
It is my job to determine the specific materials or activities that take place at each station. I use the labels ("blocks," "art," etc.) as a sort of loose guideline for what will take place in each part of the indoor and outdoor classrooms. Typically my instructions to the parents at the beginning of each session are comprised of a brief description of what I think will or could happen, then a reminder to "let the children make it their own."
I can see that I'm going to need one more day to finish tying up the loose ends and get to all the questions, including what happens when Teacher Tom is away, typical challenges, and other questions. To be continued . . .