Sunday, April 04, 2010

How's That For Business Efficiency?

There's no stopping it now. Woodland Park is going to run its first ever, cooperative summer camp and registration begins tomorrow. We're planning sessions throughout the summer in 2-3 week increments, with most of the classes welcoming children between the ages of 2-6, the caveat being that for this summer at least we're only going to be able to accommodate families either already enrolled in one of our two classes or are alumni families. In the future, if there is a future, I'd love to be able to open up spots to families not currently part of our community, but with such a short planning window, we just couldn't figure out how to make that happen.

And man did this thing get pulled together fast. Just as our new playground went from an idea on paper to a reality in about 30 days, this summer program has gone from concept to live registration in slightly more than a month!

My extended family had planned a return trip to Greece this summer, but mom needed knee surgery and her doctor said he didn't want her flying anytime soon. That suddenly opened up a hole in my summer plans. And so it's my fault that we got such a late start in organizing this thing, but I'm still reeling at how effectively and efficiently our little parent run operation has pulled everything together.

Andrea and Shelly, the moms of our 3-5 class's two Charlies, B. and L. respectively, have taken the co-chair reins of this one, along with a skeleton board, and have been overcoming every obstacle with grace and humor. Our first big hurdle was the college's inability to extend insurance coverage during the summer, but we've managed to find coverage we can afford. We also had to re-negotiate our lease, incorporate as a stand-alone entity, and figure out the nitty gritty details like management, registration, budgets, tuition, payroll, schedule/curriculum, policies, rules, parent education . . . Basically, set up an entire "business" from scratch, and all of it before everyone already had their summer plans set in stone.

I defy any traditional, for-profit business to pull itself together more efficiently than we have. 

I didn't enter into the world of cooperatives driven by any kind of economic-political ideology. In fact, I've been married to a business executive for a quarter of a century and have nothing against capitalism, with the possible exception being that I don't think it's a particularly efficient way to organize an economy. We enrolled in a cooperative preschool because the important women in my life left me with no other option. I started shopping at a cooperative grocery store because that's the closest one to my house. I received my healthcare from a cooperative because it was the most affordable. I'm a member of a credit union because they had better loan rates. I never went out of my way to become a cooperative evangelist, but with each experience my conviction grew stronger that there simply is no more efficient business model than the cooperative, especially when the goal is satisfied "customers," rather than profits.

As I wrote in this oft linked-to post:
. . . 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 judges, 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, so to speak, sharing the work, rewards and challenges. These are not just the parents of my students; they are my colleagues, allies and friends . . .

. . . 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.

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 the long-term health of the institution. 

But even within the world of Seattle cooperatives, I'm coming around to the idea that Woodland Park is comprised of an extraordinary community of families. We just received the results of the college's annual cost survey, which compares the rents, tuitions, fundraising budgets, and payroll of the 30 or so 3-5 and Pre-3 programs. Despite paying the second highest rent in the system (a rent that is a good 65 percent above the average), we have one of the lowest tuitions. Not only that but our fundraising budget (the money that families are expected to generate through bake sales and whatnot) is the absolute smallest. Lest you think that I must be taking it on the chops when it comes to pay, the only teachers who earn more than me are those with a lot more experience. And the cherry on the cake is that we still manage to find the money in our tight-as-a-drum budget to offer partial scholarships to families that are struggling. How's that for business efficiency?! All that, while offering a progressive, play-based educational experience that is second to none.

Woodland Park is a well-oiled educational machine and the rapidity and agility with which we've been able to pull off Herculean tasks like this summer camp is just one more proof.

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Unknown said...

I know your camp will be a wonderfully thrilling event : ) - just as your school days are.

Happy Easter Tom.

Juliet Robertson said...

Congratulations and How Exciting!

As the founder of a social enterprise business (LOL!) I agree entirely with your comments about the need for ownership in an entity.

I think the concept of cooperative schools and high levels of parent and child involvement in the running and organisation is great. We don't have such schools in the UK per se (but tell me if I'm wrong here folks).

All the best for the summer term, school camp and beyond.

Shelly said...

The whole summer program committee has done awesome work - especially Kimberly and Jaimee who have negotiated a lot of the red-tape business-y stuff. Everyone's hard work and commitment makes it even more exciting!

Unknown said...

I second what Shelly said. It has been really amazing to watch everyone come together to make this happen in such a short time period. It is truly a testament to the strong community that has been created at WP.

jaimeep said...

Let me chime in....this has been an amazing process to be a part of. It is a priviledge to work with other folks you not only respect, but can count on. I have never experienced quite a division of labor as we've had over the past month. You start to think about what is possible when a group of committed people come together. Not to be cliche, but together, we really are stronger. None of this could've happened with just a few people.

p.s. Tom, the video rocks!

Deborah Stewart said...

Wow - corporate entity, insurance, and other organizational processes all put together so quickly? Clearly you all do not struggle with political red tape rather you have a team that is highly passionate and motivated to get things done! Great job!

Play for Life said...

I'm a little confused ... summer camp? Does that mean you're going off on a holiday camp together or are you actually holding preschool sessions during your holidays?

This is not something I'm aware of here in Australia!

Donna :) :)

Teacher Tom said...

@Donna . . . we're holding "summer camp" sessions at the preschool during our 3 month summer break and on Fridays we're going off together to "exotic" (still in Seattle) locations!