Preschool Co-ops: Being An Involved Parent Is Great, But I Prefer My Freedom

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My three-year-old daughter started preschool a few weeks ago and it has sort of changed all of our lives. I now have time alone with our 15-month-old son, which I’ve never had before. And if he takes a nap while his sister is at school, then I have time alone. Alone! It’s kind of incredible. I can read a book, actually focus on a crossword, get some work done or choose to nap right along with him. (I have to be honest, sleep usually wins.)

I naturally assumed that my sister, whose children are the same ages as mine, must be experiencing a similar kind of freedom or respite with her son in school three days a week. Turns out I was wrong. My (adorably sweet and frightfully intelligent) nephew attends a co-op style preschool, which means my sister actually gained additional responsibilities and another workload when her son started school.

To be sure, I’m not talking about a day or two of volunteer time over the course of a school year. I’m talking about many, many hours and multiple weekly obligations. To feel the full weight of her situation, I asked my sister to tell me exactly what is required of her and/or her husband. Here goes:

  • Two three-hour indoor maintenance sessions per year.
  • One three-hour outdoor maintenance sessions per year.
  • Join one of seven or eight major committees with the number of hours dependent upon the committee (last year, she and my brother-in-law were on the outdoor maintenance committee, which ate up about 15 hours of their time. Now she’s on the Halloween Carnival committee, which she estimates will end up being a 25-hour expenditure).
  • Choose a job for the annual auction (five to 10 hours) and make a donation of funds or goods equivalent to 50 bucks.
  • Work one day every week in your child’s classroom, supervising and then cleaning up a specific area/
  • Attend two two-hour parenting classes every month.
  • Are you feeling it? Or am I a horribly selfish woman to think that all adds up to just a little bit too much? Especially when you have another child (or children) at home who’s not yet in school and requires childcare while you’re off fulfilling your duties as a co-op parent. To help offset that cost, my sister worked out a babysitting swap with another parent at the school. So, of the three days her son is in school, one of them is spent working in his classroom and one is spent taking care of her daughter plus her swap partner’s child, leaving her just a few hours of time alone with my 16-month-old niece. Oy. I’m tired.

    To find out if my dear sister’s situation is an anomaly among co-ops, I spoke with another mom, Kristi Roark, who sent both of her children to a co-op school in Wolfeboro, NH. The list of duties she provided sounds a bit more reasonable, but still fairly demanding – especially if both parents work:

    • Serve as a Parent Helper in the classroom eight to 10 times per school year.
    • Participate in two fundraisers and raise at least $200 per fundraiser.
    • Encouraged, but not required, to serve on the board (the incentive being that board members’ children bypass the lottery system, guaranteeing them a spot in the program).

    Kristi says she served on the board for five years and found that, “It just becomes a lot. Having a parent-operated business means high turnover and lots of volunteer hours just trying to keep things running smoothly. It becomes interesting when you are spending so much time on a project for the co-op and you’re leaving your child/children with a babysitter so you can better their school.”

    But both my sister and Kristi say they wouldn’t make a different choice if given the option. I want to include the benefits they cite in their own words because these two women, who don’t know each other and live on opposite coasts, had almost the exact same response.

    My sister had this to say:

    There are so many benefits. It’s much more affordable than most private preschools and it provides a community of friends and playmates. Also, you get to be involved in your child’s education before they go off to “regular” school. You learn how to be an active, engaged parent and you’ll take that with you throughout your child’s educational life.

    And Kristi echoed her sentiments:

    All in all it was an amazing experience and I would never do it another way. I was able to be completely involved in my child’s first school experience. With the co-op comes a sort of family atmosphere so it was a great way to connect with other people in the community. My kids got an excellent education…it really was an excellent way to begin ‘school.’

    So there you have it. Yes, it’s a ton of extra work but the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. I, however, remain unconvinced – not that it’s anybody’s job to convince me. I’m just saying I cherish the relative freedom that a drop-off preschool has given me, though I will admit I have absolutely no idea what my daughter does all morning…

    (Photo: Brand X Pictures)


    1. Anna

      September 24, 2011 at 12:08 pm

      I am a Director/Teacher at a Cooperative preschool. And, yes, the parents do work hard at a Coop, but the benefits for the the children far outweigh the work. The parents bring to the classroom their backgrounds, cultures, education, and skills. The children know that they are valued because of their parents involvement in their education. Not that children are not valued by parents that choose to enroll their children at other types of preschool, so please don’t misinterpret my response! Also, most Coop parents go on to serve in PTA’s in elementary, middle, and high schools. Parents form life-long friendships with other parents as do their children. I love that we have children of former Coop students enrolled, too. I think the biggest advantage to a Coop is with parents doing most of the housekeeping duties in the classroom, the Teacher is available to give undivided, individual attention to each of her/his students every day. Our school started just 3 weeks ago and I have a pretty good handle on where each of my students are academically and socially so that I can lesson plan accordingly. We have 2-3 adults in the classroom each day for 8-12 students. Exceptional adult/child ratios! Most schools in Illinois have 20 students every day with only 2 adults. Imagine 20 3 year olds with only 2 adults, not much individual attention going on there. Our parent requirements are not as much as your sister’s school, our parents have the option to assist in the classroom 2-3 mornings per month for a lower tuition. All of our parents serve on a committee and work 6 hours of property cleaning and 6 hours of fundraising each year. Our Board is made up of parents of the children enrolled and board positions are voluntary. Coop requirements vary from school to school. There is another Coop in our town that doesn’t allow parents to assist in the classroom but parents still clean and do all the other requirements.

    2. Crimson Wife

      September 24, 2011 at 5:00 pm

      Many families with SAHM’s cannot afford to pay the enormous sums charged for a traditional preschool. Sure, it’s a bit more work to be involved in a co-op but the price is so much more affordable. The local co-op preschool charges $2600 per year vs. $10k-$15k for the traditional preschools.

      I’m sorry, but you do sound both selfish and overprivileged in your post…

      • Allison

        September 25, 2011 at 8:19 am

        I’m sorry, but if the author sounds overprivileged, so do you. Just being ABLE to be a SAHM is a choice not many women have the opportunity to make, and co-ops certainly don’t exist in many, many neighborhoods. Can we just agree that we’re all privileged and not make value judgments on what type of preschool she chooses to send her kids to? The author said the benefits outweighed the drawbacks for her friend and sister but they didn’t in her particular situation. No big deal.

      • Crimson Wife

        September 27, 2011 at 10:01 pm

        Between taxes, daycare for my children, the costs associated with owning & operating a 2nd car, the need to maintain a professional-looking wardrobe and appearance, and all the things I’d need to outsource since I wouldn’t have time to do them myself, our family would LOSE money if I went back to work full-time. We can’t afford NOT to have me be a SAHM.

    3. Samantha

      September 26, 2011 at 2:58 am

      I am not a mother so I will not pretend to know the challenges of being one, however I am a teacher and I teach 3-5 year old children twice a week so I know that it is difficult. I love the idea of a co-op preschool and for the parents who can afford the cost and the time, it sounds great. However, I do not understand how some can think that people are ‘overprivileged’ for wanting some alone time. Or even worse, for having other commitments. I think for parents who have no other commitments, it seems like a great way to be part of your childs education, but does it also lead to more attachment by the child by not being away from the parents? I think everyone in this article is privileged by having this choice, other lower income parents would never have this opportunity.

      • Crimson Wife

        September 27, 2011 at 10:08 pm

        If you can afford to justify paying an extra $8,000 to $12,000 per year for traditional preschool instead of a co-op in order to get a bit more “me” time, then yes, you are overprivileged.

    4. angela arsenault

      September 28, 2011 at 3:04 pm

      first of all – thank you for reading and feeling interested enough in the topic to post a response. warms my little writer’s heart…

      secondly – no need for anyone to apologize if you think i sounded selfish and/or overprivileged in my post. you’re certainly entitled to your opinion. however, i definitely recognize the fact that co-ops are usually way more affordable than traditional preschools. i readily admit that my family is super fortunate to have the ability to choose one over the other. i didn’t mean to imply otherwise.

      on the topic of money, though, it was my conversation with my sister about childcare that sparked my interest in writing this piece. the coop’s tuition may be less expensive than other schools, but when you add on the cost of childcare incurred when you’re performing duties for the coop, plus the time cost – meaning time spent working for the coop when you might be otherwise able to do some other kind of work (that pays) – i started to wonder if the savings were actually worthwhile. for my sister, it still makes sense – so it’s the best choice for her and her family. that’s all i wanted to know.

      so many decisions we make as parents tend to come down to a balance of good to better, right? and these are all personal decisions based on your particular situation. no one of us can know another mom’s exact story, so i believe it’s best not to judge each other’s decisions. we can question and inquire with a sincere intent to understand, but judging is no good for anyone. in the end, i think we’re all out here in the world just doing the best we can…

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