Saturday, July 21, 2012

How Our Cooperative Preschool Works

(A while back I posted my Greatest Hits as determined by readership statistics, which then got me thinking about older posts that I wish more people had read, which has now become a sort of irregular series. This was one of the first posts I ever published to the blog and a lot of people have actually read it over that long span of time given that it is my go-to link when it comes to explaining how our cooperative school works. When I wrote this post, which was originally published in June, 2009 under the title A Cooperative Manifesto, it was back in the days when I never used photographs, so I've taken this opportunity to gussy it up a bit with some snapshots of parent-teachers in action, as well as to update it with a few edits. At the bottom of the post you'll find links to others in this series of posts I wish more people had read.)

One of my college courses included learning about various models of early childhood education. My classmates were mostly public school teachers earning continuing education credits. For several classes running we listened as guest speakers detailed the theory and practice of such approaches as Waldorf, Montessori, Reggio Emilia, and Hi/Scope. When it came time to learn about the cooperative model we heard from our own Val Donato (director of the North Seattle Community College Parent Education Department).

Val explained how the parents in a co-op own and operate the school at every level from the executive to the janitorial, with the teacher being the sole paid employee. We learned that every parent spends one day a week serving as an assistant teacher, bringing the adult to child ratio up to the incredible 1:2 or 1:3 category. She taught us about the benefits of teachers and parents working so closely together, both inside and outside the classroom, to create a unique learning experience for each child.

There was the usual polite applause when Val wrapped up, but the moment she left the classroom, there was an audible gasp.

“I could never do that!” said one teacher.

“It would be like having 20 bosses!” said another.

There was general agreement that the whole idea was crazy.

At this point, I’d only experienced co-op as a parent, although I’d already signed my contract to teach at Woodland Park the following year. Needless to say, I was cowed into a doubtful silence. Twenty bosses did kind of sound like a nightmare.

Twenty Bosses
I’ve now spent the last 13 years in cooperative preschool classrooms, both as a parent and teacher. I’ve never once felt like I had 20 bosses. Instead, I’ve always felt like I had 20 colleagues in the form of dedicated assistant teachers. And these are not just any teachers; these are teachers bringing mountains of love into the classroom.

Of course, at one level it’s true that I have 20 bosses. It’s the entire parent community that hires and fires. It’s the entire parent community that evaluates, and compensates. And it’s the entire parent community that observes and participates in every activity that takes place within the four walls of the school. (And while I hope it’s not true, it’s just possible that I’m a better teacher because of all those parent eyes on me all the time!)

On a day-to-day basis, however, these same “bosses” work in the classroom under my supervision. They are in the trenches with me, sharing the work, rewards and challenges. These are not just the parents of my students; they are my colleagues, allies and friends.

It’s the kind of dynamic that can only be found in organizations that operate on cooperative principles.

The Cooperative Model vs. Capitalism
When I look at my own relationships with institutions, the best ones are with cooperatives. I’m a Puget Consumer Cooperative grocery shopper. I buy my outdoor gear at the REI cooperative.  My neighborhood Ace Hardware is my go-to store for our workbench supplies.  I received the best health care of my life as a member of the Group Health Cooperative (where my daughter was born). I love my credit union. These are all variations on the co-op theme, but none are so pure as our cooperative preschool.

As we’re now witnessing the ugly downside brought on by 30+ years of increasingly unfettered capitalism and its almost religious quest for profit, it’s hard not to imagine how the cooperative model could be advantageously applied to other institutions.

For instance, when the “customers” own the business, it stands to reason that they will focus like a laser on fulfilling their own wants and needs. When stockholders are the owners, the focus is on the customers only as far as it feeds profits. When applied to healthcare the capitalist model places profit over healthcare. In education it places profit over education. In government it places profit over governing. That's simply the way the for-profit model works and companies have been successfully sued by stockholders when they don't place profit first.

When the “employees” hire, fire and pay their own “bosses”, the actual performance of management isn’t hidden in the puffy language of annual reports or stockholder meetings. Performance is totally transparent, found right there in the daily reality of how the institution functions. Capitalist owners tend to primarily consult this quarter’s bottom line when evaluating their managers, while cooperative owners (incentivized by the desire to continue to have their jobs well into the future) tend to focus on the long-term health of the institution.

When capitalist bosses hire, fire and pay employees, we ultimately wind up with an adversarial relationship in which labor becomes just another expense to cut because management is incentivized to look to the next dividend checks. When compensation is a matter of cooperative negotiation, “labor” becomes an asset or even (dare I suggest it?) human beings instead of mere resources. And, of course, there is no better way to rein-in exorbitant “executive” pay.

I’m not saying I’m against capitalism, but I do believe that the dangers of unregulated capitalism are manifest and that not every institution benefits from the capitalist model. What I am saying is that when we take the imperatives of profit and obscene executive pay off the table, the cooperative model can in many cases be a far more efficient and effective means for satisfying “demand.”

But enough of “radical” economics
The best thing about a cooperative is what it does to our relationship with institutions and the people we find there. Traditional institutions are about people doing things to and for other people. Cooperative institutions are about people doing things with each other.

I understand the reaction of those public school teachers. They are providing education to children and for parents. In their lives a parent’s request to “talk” is all too often a cause for dread. Who doesn’t feel anxious about being called into their boss’s office? As a co-op teacher, on the other hand, I talk with my colleague-bosses every day, work with them, supervise them, and get supervised by them. But it’s much more than that. I also goof around with them. I share joys and sorrows with them. We’re friends and colleagues. We’re a real community in a way that other ECE models make far more challenging.

I love our Woodland Park Cooperative Preschool and I know I’m not the only one. Families return year-after-year, child-after-child, choosing time and again to be part of what I only half-jokingly refer to as our little communist society.

I probably don’t want a cooperative making my televisions or washing machines and I’m not deaf to the argument that competition and the prospects of great wealth can lead a certain type of high-achiever to innovation and economic growth. On the other hand, I’ve seen how cooperation within the context of a committed, loving preschool community consistently “turns a profit” in the coin of confident, well-prepared kindergarteners. That’s what we come together to do.

And there’s nothing crazy about that.

(Note: If you want to read more about our cooperative and the cooperative model in general, you might want to read my Cooperative Nuts and Bolts series. There are five posts, you'll want to read from the bottom up.)

Other posts I wish more people had read:

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jwg said...

Do the parents have to do the classroom participation or can they send a proxy? I did it for my grandaughter since her parents both work. If working parents cannot be in the classroom can they contribute in some other way? Or do you have a lot of families where one parent is at home? I know of a couple of co-ops around here that are struggling because of just this issue.

Charlee said...

I work at a parent co-op I started off as a parent in the program with my daughter after a bad expirence at a highly academic program using an Abeka cirriculum. I have to say we have 4 teachers and 1 director(licensing requirements) and I love having so many to be accountable to. I love that anyone can participate in the school. The parents are not my bosses they are my team mates and our kids benifit so much from this team atmosphere.

My director is a guide for those of us who don't have years of classroom expirence yet! We have 2 first year teachers on staff and they help the 2 of us so much.

I don't think I would ever work in another type of program this is home to me and my daughter and I will miss having my daughter there but I plan to stay past her years.

We are in our 2nd year of running 3 classes from ages 2-5 in a large setting thanks to a grant. Before that it was 2 classes in a tiny area on the campus of a charter school and we have grown so much.

Parent co-ops are the way to go

john dew said...

Thanks for sharing. We are also
Elementary Education Laguna Hills

Nora Moore said...

We have never tried a cooperative preschool. It is an interesting thought to have the parents so actively involved with their kids. Do other school systems allow parents to visit or volunteer? It would be nice to be allowed to work with my child and see how they are doing once in a while with their learning.

Fran Allison said...

Wonderful blog! It’s great that the parents’ have started realizing the importance of preschools and are working hard to make sure their child is attending one of the best preschools. The cooperative approach that you have mentioned is surely what preschools nowadays need to incorporate in their curriculum.

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