Monday, February 22, 2010

Co-ops? Not for me! Or are they?

This week's Blog Cruise question is, "What do you think about co-ops?"

In general, based on experience, co-ops aren't my thing.

Before continuing, let me define co-op. To me, there is a distinct difference between a support group and a co-op. A co-op is a group that requires each member to contribute in a defined way on condition if their membership. This means that the parents involved are each doing their part, including the teaching. A support group is less structured and less commitment. There may be some requirements, such as a membership fee or participation guidelines, but typically it is a la carte rather a complete package.

When I first starting homeschooling, I joined a very small co-op in my small town. I thought that is what everyone did if you were to homeschool and I didn't realize there was any other type of group. This one was extremely close, too - just a mile down the road.

Despite my high hopes, it didn't go well.
  • The group was very small and limited only to 20 families.
  • The classes were few and varied greatly in quality.
  • The focus of the group was on older kids. My kids were 2 and 4 our first year as members.
  • The group was structured around classes. Field trips were rare.
  • I felt that many in the group were using co-op day as their core teaching.
  • The group felt strongly that they should not hire outside teachers.
  • As someone just starting out, I did not feel qualified to teach the children of others. However, that was a requirement.
I gave it a go for two years. The group was not a match for me and I was not a match for them. In fact, I was actually asked how I felt about going as an "inactive" member so they could let a family in with older kids. What I needed was a support group and I wasn't getting much support. I understand now that I was on a completely different page than most of the families in the group. At the time, though, I was frustrated.

There were four other families with young kids that came into the group at the same time, all just starting out. None of us felt like we belonged, but we also didn't really know where to go. We were often told by other members that we should do our own thing. After the second year, I took their advice. My family, along with the other four families, left the group and started another. We had such an aversion to co-ops that we advertised the new group with "we are not a co-op" on the fliers.

It was an instant success and grew very rapidly. Our model was one where each member contributed when they were comfortable, with a focus on fun activities. We did coordinate some classes, but we hired instructors and core/essential classes were not allowed. Class offerings of sewing, art, karate, textiles, etc were very popular. That first year we went on over 20 field trips. It was just what my family needed and I realized that I should have moved on from the first group much, much earlier.

Our group has changed slightly from the early years. We still offer classes with hired instructors, but they are now limited because of the economy. No one can afford the expense right now. We've also opened up offerings to include some core subjects because it is more of a focus for the older kids. However, we still hire teachers to maintain the quality. I want to avoid having Mrs. Smith teach history, even though this is not a specialty area, simply because it was an open slot for that semester and she was available. But because our focus isn't really on classes and the families vary widely, it isn't always feasible to fill a class on a given subject. For example, someone tried to coordinate a chemistry class this year but a single high school class offering was not enough of a draw for the limited high schoolers in our group. Now that my kids are older, I'm beginning to see the value of co-ops.

Despite my original experience, I am actually hesitantly considering a co-op next year for my oldest. However, the structure is completely different than the first co-op. Most classes have hired teachers and the parents help out by being classroom assistants or room monitors. There is a fee for the classes, but it is more affordable since members are required to pitch in. The group is much larger and has more class options. The focus is on just junior high and high school classes.

I'm still unsure about it and will likely only register for classes that aren't essential classes until I get a feel for the general instructional quality. The attraction, however, is more in-person academic classroom experiences for my kids. In addition, some subjects, like debate, really need a group learning experience. With high school rapidly approaching, the benefits of such a situation are higher than when my kids were younger. Also, this particular co-op appears to be rather flexible, making it feasible to take only one class and give a proportional amount of time back.

Co-ops can be great if they are run effectively and support everyone involved. If you are seeking out a co-op, I would recommend looking at the following:
  • What is the general age group? A small co-op that has a large spread of ages will likely not serve your family well. On the flip side, a very large co-op that tries to do it all may not be organized enough to run efficiently.
  • What is the focus of the group? Does the group offer core or enrichment classes? Both?
  • What is the quality of the classes? A poor quality enrichment class has fewer consequences than a poor quality core class. There is a big difference if your student's basket weaving teacher doesn't know how to teach the subject compared to a truly ineffective writing teacher.
  • What is the requirement to join? If it is teaching, are you both comfortable and available to fulfill this requirement? Teaching a co-op class is a lot of work and the time involved may be better used teaching your own. Make sure what you are required to put in is proportional to what you get out of it.
  • What is the general philosophy of the group? Does it fit with your family?
An alternative to big co-ops would be to start a small co-op class with friends that you've invited to join. Select a topic that you would like some accountability or shared experience with and limit the course to a time period. The chances for success are greater with families you know are like-minded. A friend used this model for a 10-week science class, with each participating family teaching 2 weeks, with success. There wasn't a huge commitment and no cost, while still gaining the benefits of a traditional co-op.

While I do see the value of co-ops, in general they are not for our family as a focus for our homeschool, even though I may dip my toes in next year. I do think that it is important to have opportunity to learn in a in-person group, but so far we have been able to achieve this outside of a co-op through online classes, paid courses, workshops, and field trips through our non-co-op general homeschooling support group.

Co-ops may be a complete blessing to another family. As with homeschooling families, no two co-ops are alike. If you think a co-op may the thing for your family, shop wisely for a fit. Weigh what benefits you'll be getting versus what you'll need to put in. I've heard of many successful co-op situations, but not-so-grand experiences are just as common.


Berry Patch said...

Excellent advice. I truly believe the most beneficial co-op for my family would be one with "fun" classes. Things that are almost impossible to do with a small group (I only have 3 kids). It sounds like you've figured out what works well for you.

Laura O said...


I think doing core subjects for the younger grades would be plain wrong. That's when those enrichment classes are best, especially hands on ones.

One of the classes my 7th grader is in at co-op right now is Speech and Debate. Kind of hard to duplicate that on your own.

Good luck with your evaluation and decision!