What is a Co-op?

by James L. Hymez, Jr. ED. D.

Past President of the National Association for the Education of Young Children
That's a good question. A cooperative nursery school will demand a great deal more time from you. It will demand more effort and more commitment than would a school to which you simply pay tuition. So the question is worth asking: why go to all the extra trouble?

The answer, I think, does not lie primarily in what a cooperative nursery experience will do for your child. A good co-op and a good plain-nursery-school will have very similar goals. They will both work toward rounded social and emotional and physical and intellectual development. And they will have very similar programs: the same art, music, science, and math experiences, good literature, language, social studies, physical activities, play.

I believe that co-op children do get some special breaks - we'll talk about them later. But I am sure that in a co-op you - the adults, parents, mothers and fathers - gain the most. A cooperative nursery school has to be an excellent school for young children but a co-op offers a bonus. It offers some very significant advantages to the grownups.

A co-op is your school as much as it is your child's school. You work in it. You give your energy and your ideas. You put yourself into the school. You help to shape it and to make it whatever it becomes. Today, in so many parts of our lives, something vague and faraway seems always to run the show: "establishment", the bosses, city hall. Many of us don't feel we have much of a role to play. Not so in a co-op. The very opposite, in fact. A co-op is parents plus the well-trained teacher. There is no "george." No one else to do the work, no one else to blame. Parents who choose co-ops find this full involvement welcome.

Co-op mothers and fathers take their school responsibilities seriously. They read books and articles and pamphlets about early childhood development and education. They meet often for parent discussions. It has been said - but the people weren't complaining, just describing: "co-ops are the meeting-est places!". Mothers and fathers confer frequently with the teacher. Most important of all, parents work directly in the classroom with the children, as aides or teacher-assistants or parent-helpers - whatever word you want to use. On a regular basis, co-op parents see their child's behavior in the group, they see other children's behavior, they see a school program at work.

Co-op parents do fuss a little at times because of the extra demands and the study and the meetings. But despite any gripes they are sure this all pays off. They end up knowing a great deal about education, and this matters to them. Co-op parents tend to be hipped on good education. They don't want the ordinary, they want the very best for their children. They also end up knowing a great deal about child development and about their own child in particular. To co-op parents, helping a child grow well is a matter of first-rate importance. Their own adult lives take on more significance because they are "in" on such a vital process.

The cooperative nursery school offers the adults still other benefits. One frequent outcome is that parents find new friends for themselves at school. Sharing the joys as well as the headaches and backaches of making a co-op a good school brings adults very close together. In today's impersonal, everyone-for-himself world, such close human associations are rare. Co-op parents relish them.

Co-op parents also obligate themselves to a special relationship with the trained nursery school teacher, the professional director. This is a delicate and unusual relationship. In a co-op, parents play a key part but no school can be great without a strong, trained leadership. In a co-op, professional leadership is essential but no co-op can be great without the full utilization of the talents and insights of parents. Co-ops call for a rare mixture of mutual trust and respect among adults of differing backgrounds.

Now a word about the special gains co-op children make. There are at least two I'm very aware of. Number one: co-ops usually have more adults present than do standard nursery schools, with the trained teacher on hand plus several parent-assistants. The extra hands and minds can mean greater richness and variety in the co-op program; they can mean the chance for more attention and more help for individual children. These are real virtues, not to be sneezed at.

You have to recognize, however, that there may be some tradeoffs where co-op children sometimes lose a little because of all the adults around. Especially at the beginning, parent-assistants may not be as skilled as regular nursery schools' paid aides at the beginning, but usually only for a short time. And, some children may act up in different ways when their parents are in the group. Gain number two: in a co-op, "school" doesn't end at twelve o'clock, nor does it end on Friday. A co-op child is apt to be surrounded by a common point of view twenty-four hours a day and seven days a week. The child is apt to get more consistency in guidance and more richness in stimulation, home and school and school and home

But despite all the pluses for children and all the pluses for parents, I know that co-ops are not for everyone. Some adults do not want to take on added obligations. Some do not have the time in their lives for a co-op's demands. Those mothers and fathers who choose co-ops and who stay with them are the ones who, better than I, can answer the question: "why a co-op?" I think they would say that a cooperative nursery school is one way of getting a good nursery education for your child and an amazing way of getting some some very pleasing experiences for yourself!

Having been a part of a co-op, I would go along with them. But you have to decide if a co-op fits your life. If it does, you are lucky, and I think you will be very pleased.