If you're not a homeschooler, you may have heard of different types of co-ops and wonder what they have to do with homeschooling. If you are a homeschooler you most likely already have or will at some point make a decision either for or against joining a co-op. We are first year homeschoolers, with only a kindergarten and preschooler, and I am already learning a ton about co-ops after joining our first co-op this year.
First, what is a co-op? Technically, a co-op is a group of people working together
for a common goal. You may have heard of food co-ops, housing co-ops, preschool co-ops and more. They are not just a homeschool idea. In general, a traditional homeschool co-op consists of a group of parents working together to teach all of their children in a group style setting. They may teach one or more subjects, and generally have either a "break" class period, or even days "off" depending on the style and setting. In practice, individual co-ops can vary widely. There are some that are really more of a cottage style school with small classes and paid teachers. There are others that are more about playgroups and field trips rather than traditional book learning.
The next question you may be wondering, especially if you've never joined a co-op, is what benefit these groups provide. Again, this will vary slightly by co-op, but most people in a traditional co-op are looking for a bit of that group style learning and social opportunities for their children. They also may be looking for a break from teaching their own kids, and the satisfaction of seeing learning and growth in other children.
What negatives exist in a traditional co-op? For one, the group learning naturally has some of the drawbacks of traditional education. You may have bad teachers, students with behavior or learning problems, and the increased time consumption of group learning with it's need for bathroom breaks and standing in lines and passing out papers. You also, as a teacher yourself, may have an increase in your need to spend time on lesson plans and the biggest time consumption of the co-op itself, which may meet anywhere from 1 hour to 4 hours (or more) once or twice a week.
How is our co-op working out? First, our co-op meets once a week. We end up spending from about 10am until 2pm at the co-op and at least an hour that morning (or the night before) getting curriculum together and packing lunches. It can be very overwhelming, especially with young children. My oldest son absolutely loves the social aspect of the co-op, although he does frequently ask why he "has to sit and wait" in some of the classes, which reinforces why I chose not to put him in public school this year. I love teaching the preschoolers and have seen a lot of growth just in the last few months, but my youngest is still in the last stages (I hope) of separation anxiety, so it can be a little difficult trying to teach or have some "mom time" with a 2.5 year old attached to my hip (although when he's in the preschool room with me, he's basically just another preschooler).
The biggest disappointment, in my opinion, has been that a lot of the teaching in my oldest son's (K-2nd) class is "sit and color while I read from this book" - much more than I had originally expected. I try to keep the preschool room very active and engaged, but obviously not everyone in the co-op is a trained educator, and I can certainly understand that it's much easier to teach your own children who you know so well than it is to teach a group of children, if you're not prepared for it.
What kind of co-op would work for us? I've thought a lot about next year, and I think that the traditional co-op is probably not right for us at this stage in our lives. We've made a commitment for this year, that we won't break, but it's likely that we will either do a combination of Awana, adult Bible studies with childcare, or field trip groups or we may try to find a co-op with a shorter time frame that simply does science experiments or playdates rather than trying to do more traditional learning. There's also a chance I would consider putting my youngest (who will be 3.5 next fall) into a preschool class a few days a week and sending my oldest to a "homeschool enrichment program" that uses the same curriculum we are considering for next year. And, I've been considering finding a job teaching at an after-school program and bringing my oldest along with me, but this would be dependent on finding childcare for my younger boy.
Who knows, as my husband says, we don't send kids to public education to get educated, we send them there because we need a break. So, after a week of sick kids and not feeling 100% myself, I may even consider something drastic. Probably not this year or next year, but there are a lot of options in life, and no matter which option we choose, short-term or long-term, our kids will grow up to be exactly who they are supposed to be, and will likely surprise all of us along the way.