What is a Co-op All About?

By Teacher Kerry

In January, some of us spend time at the LAPP Open House, explaining LAPP to prospective members who want to know what a co-op preschool is all about. As we work our way systematically through a seemingly endless list of requirements and responsibilities, “…class work-parent days…monthly meetings…maintenance obligations…committees…board of directors…” you can’t help but wonder for a moment why anyone shows up at all!  Being a member of a parent-participation program is no piece of cake. As I have listened to the stories told by various alums over the years, though, the recurrent themes tell a more complex story. 

Families select participatory preschools for a multiplicity of reasons, but usually the desire to spend continued quality and quantity of time with their children is paramount. In addition, as one SCVC advertisement in the Bay Area Parent magazine stated, co-op parents don’t wonder what or how their children are doing in school, because they know. Even more importantly, they have the opportunity to help to shape the program with the donation of their skills, abilities and priorities. With a traditional preschool, once the family has taken the crucial step of choosing a program, their influence is strictly limited.

I have talked with many former co-op members who note that they still maintain friendships formed while their children attended preschool together. One related how she and other moms would meet after preschool at a park, to continue talking while the children played. Soon the meetings occurred after kindergarten—and then the children no longer came to the park, yet the moms continued to meet, walking together and continuing to receive the support they had come to count on. At a class I attended a while ago, a woman spoke with me about the difficulty she is experiencing as the mother of a young infant, her feelings of isolation, confusion and uncertainty about her role and whether she’s doing the right things. It reminded me of how fortunate I was, when my daughter was a baby, to have a warm circle of friends who had already experienced some of the challenges and could encourage me through my learning process. As children grow, our need for support and information and simple handholding doesn’t decrease. Each age brings its new challenges to us as parents, and stretches us to the very boundaries of our ability to understand, to lead, to listen, and to encourage. When we are part of a genuine community, we have a much better chance of accomplishing that stretch.

The word “community,” is in itself a challenge. Almost every program with which I’ve been associated has referred to itself as a community, if it hasn’t reached further to use the word “family”—and none of those schools, prior to my time at LAPP, included parent participation in the classroom. Many good non-participatory programs do, in fact, foster community amongst the families of their students, yet often it is a narrow community, united along a slender band of shared experience at school functions and fundraisers and little more. One of the most wonderful differences in the co-op experience, as I see it, is that parents truly know their children’s friends and classmates. When you talk with another member about your child’s current excitement or challenge, that person has observed, conversed with, and sometimes applied Band-Aids to the child you are discussing. He or she can discuss your son or daughter as an individual and can expect the same level of awareness from you. This is something which is to be expected from a teacher in the classroom, but there is a tremendous added richness to an environment in which an additional 20 adults are watching each new development. No single teacher, however dedicated, can see every moment of every student’s day. Cumulatively, however, in a setting with four or more interested adults, a majority of activities and interactions are observed and noted. A parent at a preschool information night a couple of years ago responded to this idea by pointing out that most of those observers aren’t trained professionals in early childhood development, which of course is true. However, they are practiced parents, and they are there because they are truly interested in children and their development. That interest and experience is an invaluable boon.

Obviously, no experience is limited to only positive moments, and parent-participation preschools are no exception. Keeping the program going requires a tremendous amount of creativity, dedication, flexibility and sheer hard work from each member. Sometimes even the most laboriously hammered-out compromise doesn’t feel right to everyone. Sometimes the idea of community seems hopelessly idealistic in the light of one more required meeting, one more tense discussion, one more difficulty to surmount. Yet it is genuinely true that through those joint struggles, as well as the shared joy of playing and singing and creating with the children, we create the bonds which can unite us. Our families can make a difference in the lives of other families, because we have worked together to reach common goals. Because our program is truly operated by  parents, we can be more responsive to the needs and desires of each group of families, year by year. As parents participate in the Board, choose and prepare curriculum projects and represent the program at community events, they become more informed and articulate advocates for educational opportunities not only for their own children, but for those in the larger community as well.

I believe that to truly experience the meaning of “community”, we have to speak as well as to listen; to ask for help as well as to offer it. There is sustenance in offering understanding to someone whose child is going through a difficult time, to listening to the problems concerned in a move, a birth, a job-change. Equally, when we share our difficulties, we are offering others the opportunity to reach out and give support. Parenting often seems like a delicate balance between adult and child, with roles and expectations shifting day by day. Perhaps this balance is also to be found in our relationship to our larger community, if we find the energy and commitment to continue to look for it. In joining a co-op, each of you has made a commitment to your child. Your time and dedication indicate more strongly than any words that your child is fundamental to you, and that education is a priority for your family. I hope that each of you will also take with you, when you leave LAPP, a network of people with similar goals and priorities, who can continue to help with the challenges that will arrive.