Monday, August 22, 2011

Cooperative Nuts And Bolts: How Our School Works

Yesterday I mentioned that I'd been getting a lot of questions lately about cooperative preschools, how to start one, and in general asking for more insight into how cooperatives work. 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 this second post, I'm going to try to simply describe the nuts and bolts of how our school works.

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 45 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.

How our school works . . .
The parents own the school, so they are the ones who hire, pay, and evaluate. In other words, as the teacher, and only paid employee, I have 20+ bosses. At the same time, a big part of my job is instructing and managing these same parents as they work in the classroom as assistant teachers. We are affiliated with North Seattle Community College, along with some 40 other cooperative preschools, a relationship through which we receive our insurance, administrative and marketing support, executive training, and most importantly, parent education.

As is true with most cooperatives, our tuition is quite low, which is made possible because parent involvement is quite high.

Parent Responsibilities
Parents enrolled in our school take on 3 main responsibilities.

  • Parent meetings: The entire adult community convenes once a month, in the evening, at a "parent meeting," half of which is spent on the business of running the co-op, the other half on parent education under the instruction of a parent educator provided by the college. Our parents are technically enrolled as students at the college. This is credit-earning classroom time dedicated to helping parents become better parents and, importantly for our school, better teachers. When families move on from our school, they often cite the parent education as the thing they miss the most. The parent educator also attends class once a week to work with parents in a classroom setting.
  • Parent jobs: Each family takes on one of the dozens of outside the classroom "jobs" necessary to make the school run. Some choose a position on the board, which is generally more work, but with the compensation that you don't need to to take a turn in the weekly weekend school cleaning rotation. Our 3-5 board is comprised of a chair, vice chair/scheduler, treasurer, health and safety officer, parent coordinator, PAC representative (our liaison with the college and the other co-ops), as well as our parent educator and me, the teacher, as non-voting members. Other jobs might include things like field trip coordinator, photographer, gardener, teacher's assistant, purchaser, or fundraiser.
  • Work in the classroom as assistant teacher: Each family provides an adult to work in the classroom as an assistant teacher once a week under my instruction and supervision. Most often this adult is a mother, although fathers, grandparents, and even paid caregivers sometimes take on this responsibility depending on what works best for the families.

Classroom schedule and parent roles
I teach two classes -- the Pre-3's and 3-5's -- that together comprise our 3-year program. I'm going to use our 3-5's class in my examples where our child-adult ratios are 3:1. Our ration in the Pre-3 class is 2:1.

  • Discovery Time: We start our day with an indoor free play period featuring a number of "stations," such as art, blocks, sensory, drama, table toys, and snack. Each station is the primary responsibility of a parent-teacher. Ideally, as parents arrive, I take a moment to fill-in the parent-teachers about my expectations for their stations for the day, instructions (if necessary), and what to look for both in terms of individual children or group dynamics. During this time, I expect the parent-teachers to stick to their stations and to focus on the children, limiting their adult conversations. I rotate through the stations in a kind of intuitive pattern, striving to be where I'm most needed, role-model teacher behavior, and get some time with each of the kids.
  • Clean-up:  Just before I beat the drum that signals our first transition of the day, I make the rounds of the stations, if necessary, to let the parent-teachers know my expectations for how their station should be cleaned-up. While there are some aspects adults need to handle (e.g., sanitizing, really getting paint brushes clean, etc.) the onus is primarily on the children to put the school back in order. I often say that this is the core of our curriculum, the time when the children really claim ownership of their classroom, and I don't care if it takes a half hour to complete, I want the children to be in charge of it. One of the biggest challenges for me is convincing the parent-teachers to get out of the way and let the children do it for themselves.
  • Circle time:  This is our daily community meeting, a place for singing songs and telling stories, of course, but also for sharing exciting topics from home, addressing issues in the classroom, or giving compliments to our friends. The parents join us at circle time and I expect them to fully participate (e.g., singing and dancing), while also helping children manage themselves in group settings so that I don't need to repeatedly interrupt the flow of things to correct behavior, request listening, break up tussles, or do any of the other things can suck a teacher's attention away from the group.
  • Small group activities:  If there is any one thing that causes parent-teachers anxiety it's the responsibility for running these small group activities. The basic idea is that the children divide up into four groups and a parent-teacher leads each group through some sort of activity she has brought from home. This might be anything from exploring a collection of kitchen utensils, to making art, to performing a science experiment. One of the things, I think, that creates the parent stress is that it is during this time that I leave the classroom to prepare for moving outdoors and I expect them to keep the children engaged for at least 10 minutes, but ideally 15 or 20.
  • Outdoor time: This outdoor free play period also features stations such as workbench, art, sand pit, and garden, again "staffed" by parent-teachers. This outdoor time runs very much like the indoor free-play period.
  • Clean up and story circle: We end our day sitting together again as I read a story before releasing the children to their parents.

I hope this wasn't too terribly dry. Tomorrow I hope to get into the more interesting softer tissue of how parents and I work together both inside and outside the classroom.

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Anonymous said...

I wish I had been better educated about co-op preschools when my kids were young. I, and many of my friends, were under the false impression that the preschool through the local community college where the parents had to sign up for parent ed, were for "bad parents" who were just out of jail or were going to lose their kids to foster care if they didn't stop beating their kids. I remember during a playgroup one of the moms announcing that she'd just joined the local co-op preschool, and the other moms asking what she did to have CPS make her go there, and her leaving the playgroup in a huff, without explaining. Of course that just fueled the rumors about parent ed co-ops even more. Thanks for sharing and clearing up this misconception!

Olivia Jean said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Olivia Jean said...

I want to thank you....this information is invaluable to me at this time! I am starting a home base cooperative preschool in 3 weeks, this is a great resource and I will continue to reference these posts in the future.

Although it will not be ideal at the beginning, I am hoping that we will get to something that resembles this structure with time :D

Thanks Again! your awesome!

Siobhan said...

Not too dry for me (but then I do come from a desert continent).
The environment, which is the third teacher, is not only nature or the building - organisational 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.

I want to write in response, but I need inspiration to strike re a good nom de plume.

Holly said...

Not dry at all! On the contrary, both post have been very informative and helpful! I just can't learn enough :)

Deborah said...

Tom - I don't know if you are aware that I just started my own preschool. Right now it is very small but I have had one parent who really wants to be involved. I just feel so unoganized and don't know how to involve her yet. These posts are really helpful. I am considering trying some "coopting" but feel very insecure about it right now. But I might just sit and have a talk with the parent and see if she would like to work with me on it and take over all parent involvement so I can stay focused on teaching. What do you think?

Let me say - I am committed to involving parents but struggle with the best approach. If I had your phone number, I would have already been calling you:)

Holly said...

Is it too late to ask? I finally decided what I want my question to be. But I don't know how I want to formulate my question. I love the community that evolves from a cooperative school, but I'm concerned about teaching students that don't already have parents that are that engaged in their children's learning and future. How could I create a cooperative-like atmosphere when a full-fledged cooperative school isn't appropriate? I'll do my best to engage parents at whatever school I'm at, but what about parents that can't come into class to help? Or parents that can't pay the tuition for a cooperative school (I know yours is cheap, but I expect getting costs low is a difficult task that not everyone has the skills to do).

I guess what I'm trying to ask is, how do I get my low-income students into the wonderful atmosphere a cooperative school creates?

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