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Co-op Preschools: Everything Parents Need to Know

Michelle Kauffman stays busy raising two little boys and co-owning her own baby-proofing business, where she also serves as vice president of marketing and business development, but one or two times a month, for the past five years, she’s spent the morning volunteering in one of her sons’ preschool classes, as part of their cooperative preschool, Beth El Preschool in Bethesda, MD. She’s not alone in the class—there are two other full-time teachers. But as the co-op parent, she helps out with reading stories, playing with kids, supervising on the playground, preparing snacks and anything else that comes up during the three-hour school day.

For Michelle, this requires extra planning on her part. Running a business means she’s often giving presentations, and she tries to schedule them months in advance, or request co-op dates that won’t conflict. Sometimes this means extra hours at night, when her two kids, Nate and Neal, go to bed. But for her, it’s worth it.

“I really enjoy being a part of and witnessing how my kids specifically are interacting, growing and exploring at that age,” she says. Nate is now in 1st grade, and next year Neal will begin kindergarten, so Michelle will be done with the co-op preschool years. “Our feeling is that now is the time to spend with the kids, to be in that classroom setting and be a part of it. Once they start kindergarten that door sort of closes.”

There’s no shortage of literature showing the benefits of preschool for young kids: in addition to the social-emotional development, kids who attend preschool are better prepared for kindergarten than those who don’t.

But deciding which preschool is the best fit for your child—and your budget and your schedule—can be daunting. Cooperative preschools, also called co-ops, are gaining in popularity across the country, as they offer a lower-priced preschool that is subsidized by parent involvement. But not all parents have the flexibility or willingness to take part in a co-op. Here’s an overview of understanding what a co-op preschool is, how it works, and if it might be a good fit for your family.

1. What is a preschool co-op?

A preschool cooperative is one that is run with parent volunteers. There are full-time teachers on staff, but parents are scheduled to help out in the classroom and with all aspects of running the preschool, which can include administrative support, cleanup and food prep. Because parents are giving their time for free, the preschool can operate with fewer paid staff members and at lower costs than traditional preschools.

Most of the co-op preschools who spoke to Working Mother say they focus on a play-based program, rather than an academic one. “It’s a hands-on environment and we focus on an age-appropriate ability to learn,” says Janise Allyn Smith, a teacher and the director of education at the Silver Spring Nursery School, a cooperative preschool in Maryland. Janise has been teaching for almost 30 years, and before that she was a co-op parent herself. In her experience, kids at co-op preschools learn how to problem solve, focus on social-emotional development, and don’t do any worksheets.

Co-ops may be growing in popularity, but they aren’t a new phenomenon. “Co-ops are one of the oldest form of nursery school in this country, going back to WWI when a group of University of Chicago professors' wives started one of the first,” says Melissa Mitchell Jordan, a teacher and the director of Rockville Presbyterian Cooperative Nursery School in Maryland.

And in some places where preschool options can be limited or competitive, like New York City, parents band together to form co-op preschools (sometimes even unofficial ones) to provide their kids an early childhood education when they are otherwise priced out or unable to find a workable option.

2. What are the advantages to preschool co-op?

Parents, like Michelle, say they enjoy being involved in their child’s education and getting to know the other kids and families in the class, especially when kids are young and hard to reliably understand what their day-to-day preschool routine is like. It's also a cost-effective way to take part in a high-quality preschool, even while working in a part-time or full-time job with flexibility.

Co-op schools also offer education opportunities for the parents. “It’s not just for the child but for the whole family,” says Smith. “The parents learn a lot being in the classrooms. The teacher is an example of how to respond to different situations.”

3. What are the disadvantages to a preschool coop?

Well, it’s work. Not all the volunteer work is fun and games, and some of it—from cleanup, to whiny kids, to fewer hours of free time when your kid is in preschool—is not glamorous. It also can be difficult for families without schedule flexibility, or who may have trouble finding a babysitter for a younger sibling during co-op hours. (Dianne Kirsch, a graphic designer and mom of two in Takoma Park, MD, would find other stay-at-home or part-time working parents in the co-op to watch siblings while she worked a shift, and she’d do the same in return.) And while many working parents are able to attend a co-op preschool and fully participate, at the outset it can be a better fit for families where at least one parent has significant job flexibility.

4. How do I start one?

Parent Cooperative Preschools International (PCPI) has resources online for people interested in finding a group of parents, a potential space, and getting the word out to start a preschool co-op in your area. Some publications are available for free, but there is a digital download with details of how to start a co-op for $20 on the website.

Parents interested in starting one can also reach out to existing co-op schools, where directors will be able to share their experiences.

5. How do I find one?

A directory lists preschool co-ops that are affiliated with PCPI, but an old-fashioned Google search will also help show options in your area. Many co-op preschools will include “Co-op” or “Cooperative” in their title, and some religious preschools have a co-op option as well.

6. How much do they cost?

Preschool costs vary widely by region, length of school day, and the age of a child (as many states have different staff-to-child ratios for different ages). One website found that co-op preschools offer tuition that typically costs from one-half to two-thirds less than drop-off preschools.

“Because parents are in the classroom as volunteers, the cost of paid staff is lower, so families pay less in tuition than they would in a traditional preschool program that is run completely by paid staff,” says Dianne Rose, head teacher at Hunters Woods Cooperative Preschool in Virginia and vice president at PCPI. Rose estimates that tuition in cooperative preschools in Virginia is 10% to 18% lower than that of non-cooperative, part-day school programs.

7. How much time do I have to commit?

Each co-op responsibility varies by school, and includes factors like how many days a week class meets and how big the class size is (classes with more co-oping parents will be able to reduce an individual's share of the load). Smith says that parents are expected to help out in the classroom twice a month at SSNS. At Beth El Preschool in Bethesda, MD, where my own kids attend, parents co-op between 6 to 12 times a semester, depending on whether a parent has signed up for the “limited” or “full” co-op option (and the corresponding tuition for limited is slightly higher than that of full). At Jordan’s preschool, parents co-op two to four times a month and also do three cleanup shifts, though they might get a tuition break if they have a time-intensive board position.

In addition to time in the classroom, many parents perform outside administrative duties as well. “Every family either serves on the board or is on a committee,” says Gillian Jackson, President of Chelsea Children’s Cooperative Preschool in Michigan. Jackson says parents do all of the bookkeeping, payroll, tuition management, enrollment paperwork and management, run meetings, manage insurance/grants, plan and facilitate school events, maintain the classroom, fundraising, and coordinate parent days. All of this is in addition to assisting in the classroom twice a month.

8. What training do I need?

Parents who volunteer at co-op preschools do not need formal training (though one state is considering a change to those rules). What most parents do need is a certification of a TB test and a background check, and some schools offer short training sessions or orientation to explain what is expected from co-op parents.

9. Is it feasible for working parents?

Yes. But it is likely a better fit for working families where at least one parent has some schedule flexibility. A parent who has to work daytime hours five days a week without much flexibility for time off or hours shifting will have trouble co-oping in the classroom, but some co-op schools allow parents to do other things (such as administrative work) as their contribution.

Sonia Ayerdi-Hilton enrolled her twin boys in a preschool co-op in Bethesda, MD, while working full time for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She split the co-op schedule with her husband, David, and during her co-op days she’d telework, logging on for an hour before the co-oping in the morning, and then jumping back online in the afternoon. “I found that my job was more willing to be flexible with that kind of schedule,” she says. “I’d do the check-in in the morning and if something needed to be done, I’d do it, and then in the afternoon they had me for a few hours.”

Smith has noticed another co-opping trend: more dads, as compared to several years ago. “When I started out there were few, but now we’re seeing more. Some are stay-at-home dads and some just have that flexibility in their schedules to co-op. It’s really nice having the males in the classroom too.”

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