When I married my partner Luke, I lost no sleep over wedding details like the dress and color scheme. My mom brought up colors and I simply asked my maid of honor what she planned to wear. Then I found three friends willing to let me try their dresses. The one that fit became my bridal gown, and though it was old-fashioned I absolutely loved it.
Ten years later I have no regrets about making quick wedding decisions. I spent a great deal more time choosing a pre-school for our sons than I did in wedding planning, in fact, and I fear the school stress is just beginning. When we began planning a move to Virginia, I immediately started to research options, having heard of east coast übermoms placing their kids on waiting lists within moments of conception. My research brought about a shock. Even without dresses and color schemes, many pre-schools charge more per year than we paid for our whole wedding — for one child!
Then I discovered my dream come true: a cooperative pre-school. A co-op cuts costs by hiring only the teachers; parents perform all other work and take turns as teacher aide. This innovative solution would give the boys the benefits of school and allow me to be involved in my children’s education while also having personal time.
Three months later we received the news that Luke, an active duty Army officer, would be deploying to Iraq. I wondered if the cooperative model would still work well for me as a temporarily single parent, but finding no other openings, I shrugged it off. I began to have more serious misgivings when I discovered that I was also pregnant. Could I swing being a single mother to an infant and two preschoolers while also working in the school? Not only that, could I cover my school commitments during the crazy weeks right around the birth? We had already paid the deposit, though, and due to inertia and apathy I became indentured to the cooperative preschool.
I spent the summer fretting, but working with the down-to-earth folks in a cooperative school is fantastic. Morning drop-off is a gathering of sorts for parents — we meet in the parking lot or school hallways and find affirmation in the exchange of weary glances. Yes, I’m not the only one with bags under my eyes, a quick ponytail and spit-up on my shirt. I’m not alone, and here’s someone with helpful advice or an empathetic ear. Barring that, maybe it’ll be their kid stomping in a giant puddle this morning instead of mine.
Somehow they take fourteen urchins and, using gentle words and fairy dust, get them to create beautiful works of art, stand in line, play music, and interact respectfully.
Another benefit is that the parents become comfortable interacting with the kids. After spending time working in the classroom, I have no qualms about telling another child, “It’s not ok to kick your friend,” and it’s comforting to know others have my back when my son is running out into the street while his brother is harvesting poison ivy.
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I also love spying on the teachers. Somehow they take fourteen urchins and, using gentle words and fairy dust, get them to create beautiful works of art, stand in line, play music, and interact respectfully. Meanwhile I’m still trying to get my kids to use a hamper.
Spying on the teachers gives me great parenting tools. Phrases like “It hurts your friend when you…” and “That’s not a safe choice” are golden nuggets that I greedily jot down. During training we received a list of positive expressions to use in the classroom, and when I co-op I pore over the list like it’ll save my life.
Despite this cramming, I inevitably choke in the heat of the moment. Two kids start arguing over the pink paint and I freeze with indecision. How to gently find a favorable outcome using appropriate language and empowering the children? While I hesitate, the fight grows to a fevered pitch and the teacher arrives, squats to child level and sprinkles some of her fairy dust. She coaxes the children into finding their solution and minutes later they are contentedly painting while I frantically memorize the teacher’s magic words.
I need to find a fairy dust dealer — better yet, I could follow Mary-Louise Parker’s character in Weeds and get rich dealing it to desperate suburban moms. Too bad the fairy dust is just a metaphor for thousands of hours of teacher training, the dedication to work hard for little pay and a passion for working with kids. I’ll stick with co-oping and hope the talent for taming wild things can be obtained by osmosis.
Of course, there are drawbacks to a cooperative pre-school. I love working in the classroom, but there’s a tremendous amount of cleaning involved. Licensing requires a complex regimen of disinfection that could compete with the manual for operating a nuclear reactor. For someone who regularly employs the sniff test on my t-shirts, these strict cleaning guidelines chafe.
The pros far outweigh the cons, however, and the best part of being in the cooperative pre-school snuck up on me. I had struggled with the loneliness of moving to a new city, but one day woke to realize I’d become a member of a warm group of friends without even realizing it. Every morning I look forward to interacting with the teachers and parents from our preschool, and my kids and I spend many wonderful hours in their company.
Whenever I need help during the year of Luke’s deployment, my first action is to open the preschool directory and call one of my best friends. Whether they are bringing me dinners after the birth, watching my kids while I visit doctors, inviting us to neighborhood gatherings, or simply asking me how I’m doing, I love them for their generosity and sincere warmth. As it turns out, the cooperative preschool is exactly like my wedding dress: just right.
Comments on My education at a cooperative pre-school
Wonderful post! I have friends in LA who love their co-op preschools and are so sad when their kids graduate. What a great story!
Time to start a co-operative elementary school, I guess.
I think co-ops are great in theory, but teaching at one can be very stressful with the wrong mix of parents. Especially when they hold sway over the teachers as a committee and have their own agendas for curriculum, regardless of how age appropriate or relevant is may or may not be. I remember having to do math drills with 4 year olds (I’m talking adding and subtracting) because parents insisted on it. And giving homework! At 4! Because the parents thought they had to “get them ready” for kindergarten! No more teaching at co-ops for me, sadly, because of that experience. 🙁
This is great! There’s a co-op preschool about three blocks down the road, and I eye it with a mix of envy and fear. I love the idea of getting the child into a preschool that models working together and involvement (and it so close, lol).
How often did you serve as a TA? I worry about the time commitment; one of the reasons I want to send the child to pre-school is so that I can work during the day.
Either way, Miles isn’t ready yet; he’s right up to their minimum age requirement, but he’s nowhere close to being potty-trained.
Thanks for sharing! 😀
Awwww, that brings back great memories of my son, now 9, in our neighborhood co op. And how much fairy dust I gathered from the teacher. Oh yes! We had a great time and are still friends with many of those families- our little tribe. Great article.
What a unique outlet for education! I should look around my area and see if there are co-ops in our area. I never have even heard of these until now.
This is great! We’re a mil fam too and one of my biggest concerns is my daughter’s education. Did you find the co-op helpful for your children dealing with a deployment? Also would it be possible to work/TA at a co-op? Thanks!
Wonderful post, thank you for sharing. We are about to move to a new state where I will be a SAHM to my son with plans to add to the family very quickly. A co-op preschool sounds like a perfect way for me and for my son. I will have to see if I can find one in my new city.
I would also be interested in what the average time commitment is for a co-op preschool.
I don’t have twins! I had a 4-year old (5 days per week) and a 2-year old (2 days per week). Total I worked in the school about once every 2.5 weeks, since I had 2 kids going that often. But next year my eldest will be in Kindergarten and I won’t be in the classroom quite as often. Thanks for your questions!
I was in a co-op briefly last year, for my 2 year old. It was very informal, more like shared babysitting with a small group of parents. I really loved the idea, and it worked out pretty well despite 1 or 2 parents being a little “off.” I ended up having to go back to work and take my kid out of the group but I would totally do it again!
I hear what you’re saying! I’ve always had a ton of respect for our teachers, especially given the unique circumstances they work with. I’m sorry to hear your situation didn’t work well for you, and am so glad that so far the group dynamics at our school have been very workable.
Thanks for sharing! I have a 5 month old and have plans to participate in a co-op preschool. Your article really helped me to more fully understand the benefits (beyond financial) of co-op preschools.
I love it! Only the author will understand when I say this is one of my favorites!
Very well put! My four year old just finished his first year at a co-op preschool and we both LOVE it!!! I love meeting the other kids and parents and knowing what’s going on in the classroom. We do a regular summer school elsewhere just to keep the routine going in someway and it is such different and less fulfilling experience. Thanks for writing, loved the fairy dust analogy and hope others will seek out co-ops in their communities.
Nancy, I hope you find a wonderful community where you can enjoy being an integral part of your child’s education.
Cathy, thanks for your continued support!
Lindsay, we’ve also enrolled in a few summer camps, and while they’re valuable in their own way, I’m looking forward to one week this summer when a few families are joining me in the experiment of doing a summer camp coop. Maybe something like that would work for you, too?
This is such a great idea, I wonder if when I am a mama I can find this in Iowa.
Great article! I hope I can be similarly involved in my future kids’ educations!! Thanks!
Anyone have any tips on finding a co-op pre-school?
Marissa, while google is a great tool in many ways, I’ve found that coop schools are sometimes still low to the ground and out of the internet scene. If you don’t find one in your area with a quick online search, you could try asking at some of the other non-traditional schools, such as Montessori and Waldorf. Also, sometimes natural food stores and breastfeeding support groups have information or members who are in the know about cooperative pre-schools in the area. Finally, you could always start one yourself! It doesn’t have to be fancy or start big– with 4 friends you can set up a rotating schedule where each person hosts for a day out of the week. Good luck!