Thursday, August 25, 2011

Cooperative Nuts And Bolts: Some Co-op Realities

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 fifth and final 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 the fourth post I got into reader's questions, writing a brief history of cooperatives with links to more information, and discussed how parent education and parent scheduling works. In today's final post I'm going to try to finish answering your questions and generally tie up some loose ends.

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 48 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.

I attended public schools in Columbia, South Carolina through 4th grade, a state whose schools at the time were considered among the nation's worst, with the schools in the state capitol ranking right at the bottom. I nevertheless feel good about the education I received during those years, not necessarily because of anything my teachers or schools did or didn't do, but because of the support I got from my parents.

Teachers have been under assault from all directions these last several years, being made the scapegoats for the false idea that America's schools are failing. Research consistently shows, however, that despite the rhetoric about "bad teachers," parents have a far greater impact on educational outcomes than teachers, schools, or any other single variable. It's quite simple: the students whose parents value education and are actively invested in their academic life tend to be better educated.

Parents, be it via a cooperative or not, as they are in every other aspect of a young child's life, are the key. As educators, if we want to do just one thing that will have the most impact on your students' success in school, it will be to encourage greater parent investment in their children's education. My friend and co-op parent Toby recently asked me what parents can do when they have no choice but to send their children to flawed public schools (e.g., standardized curricula, high stakes standardized testing, too much filling of the vessel and not enough lighting of the flame, etc.). I think this is a big part of that answer.

The economic realities of the cooperative model
Let's be honest, the cooperative model requires one fairly rare things in order to function: families with at least one parent available to put at least 5+ hours a week into their child's school. Almost by definition this means middle class families, and even then with most parenting partners both working, it even excludes a lot of those families. Some co-ops get around the realities of a traditional work schedule by running in the afternoons or evenings, but they tend to be chronically under-enrolled programs, probably because parents are exhausted at the end of the day.

Over the years, I've heard from teachers who say they like everything they hear about the cooperative model, but bemoan the fact that their student's parents simply don't have the time or interest to work in the classroom, and this seems to be particularly true in schools that serve lower income populations; those who tend to have less flexible work schedules, more single-parent households, and, in general, less experience, first hand or otherwise, with educational success. These, not coincidentally, tend to be the schools that are "failing" (in the parlance of the education reformers) and no amount of test prep is going to change what is really a symptom of poverty.

I'm only half joking when I suggest that instead of putting money into things like high stakes testing, new buildings and text books, or getting teachers competing against one another for bonuses, we might want to consider paying these poor parents to get involved with their kid's school. That's what the research seems to indicate will make the most difference. For anyone thinking of starting a charter school in a poor neighborhood, here's the free idea from Teacher Tom. I'll bet it would work.

I don't mean to be flip, but that really is the extent of my advice for teachers about parent involvement in these circumstances. The challenges of poverty are not issues that can be addressed through the schools unless the plan is for everyone of us to become one of those "super teachers" about whom they make movies and get busy inspiring those kids with street-smart wit, no-nonsense toughness, and a heart of gold. But since we live in the real world, I will continue to have great respect for teachers who do their best and hope for the best.

Not all parents, even those with children in these "failing" schools, are hopelessly disengaged, however, and there are ways to help get them invested in their child's education without setting foot in the classroom. I know it's above and beyond the call of duty, but teachers who work to make connections with parents, who teach them how to support their child, and who open lines of communications with home, are probably engaged in the single most important thing they can do toward educating their students.

(Incidentally, as a parent of a child in a private school, I will say that I've come to the conclusion that the single biggest reason these schools produce superior educational results is parent engagement. There's more to it than this, but to be perfectly blunt about it, when you're paying a high tuition, it's only natural that you're going to keep a close eye on this investment in the form of being quite actively engaged, staying on top of how your child is doing, getting to know their teachers, jumping in when things don't seem right, and generally supporting your child and the school. My daughter's school is not a co-op, but I never go there without bumping into her classmates parents in the hallways and offices, even in the high school. This sense of community is the reason we've been there for 9 years and plan to be there for 13.)

What happens when Teacher Tom is away?
One of the parent jobs is what we call "teacher's assistant" (TA). I usually describe this as the easiest job in the school until it is the hardest. This is the person who takes over for me should I be sick, traveling, or otherwise unable to attend all or part of our school day.

I don't miss a lot of days due to sickness, thankfully. After 13 years of diving daily into the world of childhood illness, my immune system appears to be quite powerful. 

More often than not, I'm able to plan for my absences. I'll usually prepare a detailed written classroom plan for my TA, complete with suggestions for books to read and songs to sing at circle time. I always wish that I could have a webcam installed in classroom on these days. I imagine that this is when we come the closest to the ideal of a cooperative. The typical report back from the TA is, "It went well, but the kids missed you." That sounds about right.

Rules and regulations
Many people, especially those from countries outside of North America, ask me about credentials and regulations. I've even been told by some people (always English people so far) that our school would simply be "illegal" in their country.

Say what you want about our schools, but it seems that we, at least in Washington state, are not as regulated as other parts of the world. For us, this is a good thing. I am not a "licensed" teacher, nor do I carry any particular credential other than a bachelor of science degree in journalism (and a minor in English). At one time I did some college level ECE coursework with the idea of completing a degree, but was hired by Woodland Park before I got that far based upon my 3 years as a co-op parent and referrals from my daughter's former teacher and parent educator, and I haven't looked back. As I mentioned previously in these "nuts and bolts" posts, we seem to have a very effective informal apprenticeship program going here that works very well for us. Cooperatives are owned by the parents and they can, quite rightly, hire whoever they want to teach their children.

I'm not sure of the legalities of how we've made this work (although it has something to do with the fact that we technically operate as 3 separate half-day programs) but our school is also not licensed or regulated, at least by education authorities. What outside rules we must follow come from our insurance company, which requires us to follow certain health and safety protocols, most of which are very common sense. For instance, I must undergo an annual criminal background check. Fair enough. And parents, for their own protection as well as the child's, are not permitted to be alone with a child that is not her own. Fair enough.

I often describe our school by saying we are a group of people who have chosen to homeschool our children together. And that's certainly true as far as state rules and regulations.

One of the biggest challenges I face as a teacher in a co-op is one that arises from one of the greatest benefits of our model. If they don't feel that way at first, most parents come to value the connections and friendships they form with the other adults they find here. Just last week I ran into Lauren, whose daughter Ava is now in 6th grade, and she told me she her family still regularly gets together with a group of former co-op families, and some of them even read this blog!

Of course, that also means that there is a strong temptation to chat with your friends during class, which tends to take the focus off the kids. I don't want be too much of hard-guy about this, but it's an admonishment I find myself giving at just about every parent meeting. I avoid making these admonishments during class, although usually all it takes is a little proximity on my part to remind parents to wrap things up.

Another typical challenge is that parents of young children are not always entirely in control of their own time, which means that on any given day, there may be a parent who is late in taking charge of her station. This may not sound like a big deal to a teacher who is accustomed to working a classroom alone, but I've come to count on those adult being in place by 9:30 and if they're not, it sometimes means that the station is closed to the kids until she arrives. More often than not, however, another parent is willing to fill in for a few minutes when someone is running late.

Generally speaking, however, this is not my classroom. It belongs to the parents and their children. No matter how much I speak to them about how I believe things ought to operate, I can never go any further than to speak of them out of my "expectations." Typically, the majority of the parents come to share my expectations, but ultimately, each year's collection of families forms their own culture surrounding their work in the classroom, one that suits them as well as their kids. I will always push from the direction of my expectations, but at the end of the day, the parent community, as it should, regulates itself.

If you are a teacher who tends to like to be "in control," you'll have to learn to give some of that up if you're going to have parents want to keep coming back to your classroom.

Yesterday, I included this quote from a reader, Siobhan Hannan:

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.

I think Siobhan has hit the nail squarely on the head. Cooperatives are not about a pedagogy or a method or an ideology as much as they are a powerful way to organize the first and second teachers (parents and classroom teachers). It really does, more than any other model with which I'm familiar create that "unity of purpose." I want to teach here for the rest of my life.

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Crystal said...

Tom, you should write a book on how to run a cooperative preschool, and include some examples of your awesome projects as well!!!

Anonymous said...

I had never heard of a co-op school. Thanks for such an interesting and amazing post. inspired.