The Co-Op Experience

Transcript of a video created by Bonnie Hester, Director of Dandelion Nursery School

In a good co-operative nursery school parents and professionals collaborate to provide a high quality, developmentally appropriate education for young children. There is probably as much variety between co-ops as between other early childhood programs. Some provide part time as well as full time options, while some offer a range of part-time with optional childcare before and after the regular school hours. Some co-ops combine children into mixed age groups while others keep same age children together. Co-ops may be completely parent run, but a parent board of directors that hires a Teacher/Direction and other paid staff governs most. Licensing requires only a Teacher/Director for 24 children or fewer. There must be a ratio of, at minimum, one adult for every five children.

A Teacher/Director must have at least 24 units of Early Childhood Education credits, six units of administration and two units of adult supervision. She or he is the person prepared to oversee the classroom and take primary responsibility for the school. Often there are other teachers who share these responsibilities. The professional’s job is to make sure a standard of quality early childhood education is upheld for children while facilitating growth in the adults to parent and teach. Besides modeling developmentally appropriate practice while working with children, a teacher in a co-op must think about ways to encourage the adults’ construction of knowledge and to apply what they know. A good program includes opportunities to reflect on the classroom events daily and problem solve in immediate and practical ways.

Although co-ops vary in the balance of teacher to parent influence in the running of the school, when there is a respectful collaboration with a clear definition of responsibility, co-ops run well.

In thinking how to tell you what co-ops have to offer, I’d like to encourage you to recognize a high quality program for young children first. NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children) describes in its position statements explicit appropriate and inappropriate practices for early childhood education. High quality programs recognize that developing capacities for emotional competence forms a foundation from which children can grow into healthy, whole people with dispositions to learn. Learning environments where one can see value placed on creating relationships in a caring community go a long way towards Stanley Greenspan’s definition of meeting Six Emotional Competencies. When children experience responsive care, they grow in their capacity for the Six Emotional Strengths:

  1. Intimacy—the ability to communicate/reciprocate a feeling of warmth and love through close physical contact and the sharing of private experience.
  2. Self-esteem—a sense of inner positiveness/feeling good about one’s actions on self and others.
  3. Impulse control—the ability to self-regulate, to foresee the consequences of one’s actions on self and others.
  4. Distinction between fantasy and reality—the ability to distinguish between what’s pretend and what’s not.
  5. Imagination, creativity, and curiosity.
  6. Empathy and acceptance of loss—the ability to take the perspective of another; and to recognize and cope in adaptive ways with the emotions aroused by loss.

There is a great variety of experience, skill and talent amongst the people who gather to contribute to a co-op. Along with first time parents are those with three, four, five-year experiences. Co-ops have personalities. the rituals and routines are handed down along with instructions about running the fund raisers or working in the classroom. Parents become active participants in their child’s first school experience, sharing in the growth of the child while helping facilitate both the operation and direction of the school. Usually parents work in the classroom on a regularly scheduled basis. They learn to observe children closely and how to guide children as they interact in play and curriculum activities. Parents may take on a job like purchasing supplies or writing the newsletter, or serve on a committee or the board. Parents are expected to help maintain the school’s building and grounds and participate in fund raising efforts. They come together monthly at a parent meeting to discuss school business, possibly make decisions, socialize, and for presentations and discussions about parenting and other topics relevant to young children and families.

A shared responsibility is built in a co-op because the leadership (teachers and board members) plans for it. Through many opportunities for people to work, eat, talk and play together as they socialize, fund raise, conduct business and care for the learning environment, parents share their hopes and dreams as well as concerns and frustrations for their children and themselves. While they are busy, relationships are formed and community is built.

Most co-ops recognize the need for busy people to buy out of some of the responsibilities, but all co-ops share a sense of investment in the school and its goals, and a shared responsibility and satisfaction that comes from participating in a common effort.

Community allows the necessary foundation for trust and a sense of affinity for each other. Families in co-ops support each other and grow up together. They trade childcare, books, hand-me-downs, rides, and sometimes provide meals when a new baby arrives or someone is sick. They look out for each other’s children forever after. My son calls it the “Momafia.” As a teenager, when he was spotted on Telegraph Avenue during school hours, I heard about it. Children benefit from the village approach in a well run co-op. They form close relationships with the teachers, but also thrive when in a setting where parents are there not only for their own child but for all the children. They accommodate to a rotating staff of parents and soon know all the relationships, including siblings who make appearances.

Daniel Goleman writes about the importance of emotional competence in his book Emotional Intelligence. He believes there is a global phenomenon contributing to the neglect of children. Lack of time and attention creates, “even for well intentioned parents, the erosion of the countless small, nourishing exchanges between parent and child that builds emotional competencies.” I see his bad news reversed in the co-op model. I am amazed by the myriad ways people find to deal with their work schedules and family commitments so that they can participate in their child’s early education. Co-ops produce an inordinate number of PTA presidents, school activists, coaches and people who decide to become teachers. Parents gain experience and confidence in their ability to participate in and affect their children’s schools. All children benefit from this generous model. I see the possibility in my setting for drawing attention to the simple but profound ways to concentrate on countless small, nourishing exchanges. Every interaction is an opportunity.

There are many good early childhood programs in the area. I urge you to check out the co-op near you.