Co-Opted: Why some co-op preschools work better in theory. The pros and cons of co-ops on

Why some co-op preschools work better in theory.

by Sasha Brown-Worsham

August 26, 2009

When I began to hunt for preschools near my home in Boston, I quickly discovered that a good urban preschool often costs more than a state school’s tuition, has a waiting list longer than War and Peace and makes its selection based on a series of strange prerequisites that often seem both mysterious and arbitrary. One, for instance, included questions in the application asking when my two-year-old learned her letters and whether she had any special talents to contribute to the class (which, by the way, she does: singing almost everything she says to the tune of “Baa Baa Black Sheep”). So when i learned about the co-op option – a preschool run entirely by parents, sometimes with the help of a hired professional, all for a fraction of the cost of a traditional preschool – I was sold. I envisioned my fellow co-op parents being likeminded happy types who would plan innovative curriculums, use environmentally sound cleaning products and provide organic snacks.

But, like Communism before it, the reality of the co-op is often divorced entirely from the fantasy.

Callie Lambeth, a mother of two from California and the President of Paso Robles Cooperative Preschool, remembers being blindsided when they first joined two years ago.

“I picked the school because it was the cheapest tuition I could find,” says Lambeth. “I knew nothing about the school and its philosophies, and was completely overwhelmed at the Orientation Meeting. Fines, fundraising, parent workdays, mandatory clean-up days. I was putting my three-year-old in preschool, for crying out loud, not college.”

The cost is what draws people and makes them overlook the less appealing factors. At Paso Robles, for instance, three days of preschool costs $200 a week (for parents who participate in fundraising). Compare that to $500 a week for the same amount of care at a private preschool. Last spring, my own daughter was in a full co-op (parents only, no professionals) and it was even less expensive – three days a week (including one work day) for roughly $100 a week – since we did not hire professionals.

The cost, however, does not include the fines: $50 for missing a day of work; $100 for missing a clean-up; $25 for missing a meeting. And though they are enforced on an honor system (there was no contract in my case), it is hard to escape without major guilt, at least. “It’s only cheaper if you do all the work,” Lambeth agrees “If you end up paying a ton of fines, it costs more than regular preschool.”

Fines were only the beginning of the bureaucracy I saw during the three months my daughter was at the co-op. Some rules – all organic snacks; no crackers before fruit; only one little sibling per day – were enforced stringently. Others – children must be able to walk up and down stairs unassisted; there can be no “personal toys”; children should not slide on their bellies – were less so.

One of the problems with the co-op system is that very often, the parents will have very different visions for how the school is to be run. For instance, one parent interpreted the schools’ eighteen-months-to-three-years age range to apply to children who were eighteen months by September. Another parent believed a child could enter at eighteen months regardless of birthdate. With no professional director to sort these things out, something as seemingly petty as this causes squabbles and confusion galore.

In addition, if every involved parent serves as both a board member and a teacher, some can take their “power” a little too seriously, says Cindy Rzasa Bess, PhD, a developmental psychologist and education consultant who directed a co-op preschool for several years. In my case, I was called on the carpet by the “Health and Safety Officer” at my daughter’s co-op for bringing my daughter in “sick,” even though her elevated temperature did not even count as a fever according to the co-op’s own rules. This mother saw an opportunity for sanctimony and used it.

Why some co-op preschools work better in theory.

by Sasha Brown-Worsham

August 26, 2009

“Some parents lose sight that they are one of many parents and try to impose their will on and over others,” says Bess. “If every parent wants to create the perfect program for just their child, then everyone may suffer.”

Laura Wright* (name changed by request), a mom of one from Northern California, had her own pre-school mama drama when she dared to bring in a snack not healthy enough for another mom’s child.

“One time, a parent brought Go-gurts (flavored yogurt in tube) for ‘nutrition,’ aka snack.,” Wright says. “The mom working the kitchen that day flat-out refused to serve them to the kids. That same mom ended up pulling her daughter out of the school, apparently because it was not the hippie Shangri-la she had envisioned. The following year, another parent brought L’il Smokies (cocktail sausages). Everyone was laughing about it behind her back. Someone even referred to them as a ‘white trash snack.'”

The Mommy (and Daddy) Wars can also come into play in a co-op school. The working parents have less time to devote to the school and often have more money to throw at less time-consuming solutions. For instance, at least once a month, there was a major clean-up at my daughter’s co-op. All of the parents were expected to devote a Saturday morning to the arduous task of scrubbing the walls, floors and grimy-mouthed toys.

“For $50 per family, per semester, we could hire a cleaning crew,” my husband pointed out. “Our time is worth more than this.”

To the co-op, time is money. To the co-op, time is money. And for working parents, this often means they either can’t participate or can in a very limited capacity. “I am a stay-at-home mom, so I have the time to volunteer in my kids’ classes and be on the Board,” says Lambeth. “Some parents can’t do that, and co-ops aren’t known for making room for them. It’s all about community and partnership, and many parents who are forced to work miss out on that because they are unable to work the required number of days in the classrooms.”

This was also an issue for Wright.

“During our second year at the co-op, my husband was elected the preschool board. As parents who both hold full-time jobs, we’d always struggled to keep up with the stay-at-home parents who seemed to have their entire lives and egos wrapped up in the preschool,” Wright says. “My husband admittedly let a couple of things fall through the cracks, and we found out the other board members were talking about him behind his back. He decided to resign from the board, but felt guilty about leaving them in the lurch and half-expected them to try to convince him to stay. Instead, they seemed to be relieved. The director and the board president had kind of a good-cop-bad-cop set-up, and both of them would literally follow parents around commenting on how something should have been done differently, or re-doing it ‘their way.'”

At a co-op, even more than a professionally run school, philosophical differences can get the best of us. Get a good fit and all the parents can get along and agree on priorities, but get a bad one and there are bound to be drop-outs.

Why some co-op preschools work better in theory.

by Sasha Brown-Worsham

August 26, 2009

“The parent educator in our co-op pulled out puppets to ‘role play’ a pair of kids having a fight,” says Amy Lang, a mom from Seattle. The “fight” went something like this:

“Oh Froggy, you are a poophead!”

“Ducky, you are mean (whack, whack!)”

“Froggy, I HATE you!”

“This was my very first meeting and in a room of fifteen people, sitting in a circle, there was no place for me to hide when I started to giggle in that, ‘I’m not going to be able to keep it together’ way,” says Lang, who quit about three months after she started, largely because of this simplistic view of conflict. At some co-ops, conflict avoidance has supplanted conflict resolution – one of the key lessons of preschool – for the sake of convenience. (I observed this in my own co-op as well, when we allowed my daughter to bring a lovey to school and were later scolded that such a move “might cause conflict.”)

Of course, not all co-ops are built equally. The one we enrolled in happened to be a full co-op, entirely parent-owned, run and operated. Other co-ops hire professionals to teach and handle the more business-y end of things while the parents act as the board and stay involved in other parts of the school. This scenario often works better, says Bess.

“Sometimes parents believe they know what group their child belongs in or what teacher they must have, but (a professional) director has a very good grasp of group dynamics and the in-house teaching styles, so they can anticipate where a child will best flourish,” says Bess. “If a parent can trust a program to provide their child an early education, they should also believe the adults administering it and teaching within it can see where the best matches are.”

An entirely parent-run co-op is cheaper than professionally managed. And the reality is, in many cases, you get what you pay for.

Many other mothers loved their co-ops. Here’s what finally made us quit our co-op: one of the moms became enraged when a misunderstanding made her think I brought my daughter into school less than 24 hours after she had a fever. She screamed at my child and threatened to leave if I did not. While this is not an example of typical co-op behavior according to other members, I still received not one, not two, but three emails from various moms in the co-op all backing this woman’s decision – a fact I attribute more to their friendship forged during the months before we joined the co-op than to the reality of the situation.

Between this incident, the hidden time commitments I had not seen coming, the judgment and the rules, my husband and I decided we had had enough of the co-op.

But as relieved as I was to escape the other mother, I did feel I was letting my daughter down. And many other mothers loved their co-ops. “I love the parent involvement and the close relationship between the parents and teachers. I really do feel that the experience my children have had at a co-op preschool has enriched not just their own lives, but mine as well,” says Lambeth.

In the end, my family surrendered. In September my daughter will enter a semi-pricey private preschool. The school has teachers, a director and is professionally run. Even with the fines, this school will be more than five times the price of the co-op. And though I will still remain involved in my child’s education, I am looking forward to my time being my own and also to having professionals stand in between me and the other preschool parents.

Most of all, I am looking forward to working with my daughter’s teachers – trained professionals – in order to best suit her needs. For our family, high tuition seems a small price to pay for all that we will gain.

Article Posted 6 years Ago
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