Co-ops That Work
- Debra Bell Columnist, author and conference speaker
- 2004 7 Jan
Ask my kids, at any time, their favorite part of home schooling and they'll always say "co-op days." Me too. I would have quit long ago if I didn't have several opportunities a month to share the load (and chew the fat) with other home schooling moms. "Don't try this alone!" That's my motto.
Now don't romanticize this picture. I've seen co-ops that have sputtered, burped, and failed. And I've heard wild tales of ones that are more hassle than they are worth. Our own co-operative experiences have certainly had many moments of trying pain. But we've always made adjustments, resolved conflicts, marshaled our resources, and kept plugging along. Last week the Learning Center co-op where my kids and I are members held its twelfth annual summer organizational meeting. Had we moms not been willing to make things work over the years, our kids would have missed some of their favorite home schooling memories:
Sailing down the Chesapeake Bay in a replica Pungy Schooner, the co-op kids serving as the crew; a dramatic production written and produced with a "kids only" staff; an overnight bus trip to the Big Apple; an international bazaar and food festival; a juried science fair; square dancing; Book-it program; special speakers; choir; flag football; pizza parties. Twelve years of scrapbook memories we could have never made happen alone.
But sometimes co-ops work, and sometimes co-ops fail. What's the difference? After 12 years of co-oping, here's what I've concluded:
1. Strong co-ops start small and build upon success. Give yourself some time to work out the bugs before you launch a county-wide program. One co-op I know of with "a come one, come all" approach attracted more than 100 families its first year. Without structure or direction, it all came crashing down with plenty of frustration and offenses all around.
2. Strong co-ops are fluid. They change with the needs of their members. Every summer, we've tweaked and tinkered with the Learning Centers purpose and structure. We started out with a strong bias towards the upper grades. But other opportunities have now involved most of our teens elsewhere. We didn't put up a fight, insisting they stay instead we noted our large group of 4th-6th graders and redirected our programs to their interests. Some of our moms have felt the need to drop out because their busy lives just cant accommodate the "teaching" responsibility of the regular co-op. So were adding a "field trip only" component for auxiliary members. I trust that both these adjustments will better serve our members this year; but even so, I'm sure next summer well be refining our co-op yet again.
3. Strong co-ops require every member involvement. Christian home schooling is just a microcosm of the Body of Christian benchwarmers here. We each have gifts and talents God calls us to contribute to the building up of the body in love. Your co-op is a great place to start exercising and discovering those gifts. At The Learning Center each mom is required to teach or help two out of the three time slots or fulfill some other duty such as clean-up or scheduling. We learned (of course the hard way) that a co-op that allows some parents to drop off their kids for the day isn't a plan with a happy ending nope, nope, nope. Don't indulge in that one. Parents must be present and engaged! One long-standing co-op I know of has a mentoring program that matches experienced moms with new home schoolers for the purpose of helping them develop their talents.
4. Strong co-ops have clear, recognized leadership. As soon as your co-op grows beyond 4 or 5 families, a decision-making body is needed. (If you don't do this, the folks with the strongest personalities will run the show while the meeker ones fume pure democracy is not possible in a fallen world.) Appoint someone with vision for the future and the people-skills to inspire others to follow. Balance your visionary person with a few other women with complimenting gifts administration and helps, for instance. Leaders need to take seriously their responsibility to serve with humility dealing graciously with others, admitting mistakes and asking forgiveness. Those in charge set the tone for relationships within the entire group, moms and kids included. Its also important for those in charge to solicit input from every member if we want folks to contribute their gifts and energy, they need to feel they have an opportunity to contribute to the direction and content of the co-op as well.
5. Strong co-ops engage kids in meaningful activities. We encourage our moms to first design classes that cant easily be done at home. We want hands-on experiences and group work. Or we want to choose an activity that requires an audience, such as a play or a choir. Keep the seatwork and the lectures to a minimum. Here's what's on tap at our co-op for our older kids this year: rubber-stamping, cooking, space camp, forensic science (we nabbed a criminal lawyer-turned-home school mom), drama production, volleyball, basketball and hands-on geography. For our younger classes (3rd grade and younger) we rotate them through a 3-period gym, art and unit study schedule. And for the moms, we have a teachers lounge stocked with fresh perked coffee and sticky buns! (The cure-all for early symptoms of burnout.)
6. Strong co-ops deal with conflict biblically and immediately. Be on your guard. Personality conflicts and unresolved offenses will destroy a vibrant co-op faster than anything else will. Leaders should remind members regularly of the importance of dealing with inevitable offenses quickly and in private. If the situation cant be resolved, then someone on the leadership team should be involved for the purposes of mediating the situation. Don't exclude the kids from this practice either. They need to learn this critical exercise in humility early in life. If I could Id make Ken Sandes The Peacemaker mandatory reading for anyone involved in a co-op, especially leadership. Its the best book out there on biblical conflict-resolution.
7. Finally, strong co-ops build upon the bonds of friendship. Relational glue is what will keep your family invested in the effort even when the co-op doesn't completely meet your individual needs or vision. At the Learning Center, we have a moms lounge where we can relax together and share our lives during our free period. And we try to plan activities that foster friendships among the kids as well: overnight camping trips, picnics, open gym, etc. all these give kids informal time to get to know one another better. This more than anything is the reason were still going after twelve years.
Co-ops require time and energy from us, but the synergy that comes from pooling our resources sure makes that effort worthwhile for our kids.
In His Sovereign Grace,
Some Recommended Resources:
What You Do Best in the Body of Christ: Discovering Your Spiritual Gifts, Personal Style and God-given Passions. Bruce Bugbee
The E-Myth Revisited, Michael Gerber.
This classic work for entrepreneurs provides an excellent organizational model for anyone trying to build a team of people together to accomplish a purpose. Especially for leaders.
The Peacemaker, Ken Sande.
The Young Peacemaker, Corlette Sande
Peacemaking strategies for kids.
Determining Your Child's Learning Style and Designing a Program to Match