Homeschool co-ops can offer your children a chance to meet other homeschoolers, work in a group, and learn from a teacher that's not you. Co-ops can make hands-on learning opportunities (such as science experiments) more practical, and can be a real joy to be a part of!
You'll need 3 things to start a learning co-op of any kind: students, volunteers, and a meeting place. When you're trying to start up a homeschool co-op, send out an email on your homschool email list. If you don't have an email list, search for one on yahoo groups for your area. Post an announcement in your church bulletin. Hold a meeting for everyone interested and share ideas so everyone is on the same page.
Once you have some interest, look into finding a meeting location. Can you meet at your local Catholic church? This will probably not be an option if your church already has a school. Perhaps you can meet at someone's house, the library, the community center, or at a protestant church. You might have to pay a fee, but once it's split among many families it can be worth it. If you're going to be meeting at a house, consistency can go a long way. It would be best to meet at the same house for the entire year. If you need to take turns hosting, each member can host for 3 or 4 weeks in a row rather than switching every week.
Decide how often and at what time your group will meet. I think once a week works best. Mornings are always better than afternoons. Some groups meet all day, but I don't think that works well in a Catholic co-op, reason being that everyone always seems to have lots of little siblings that need naps. You just can't keep toddlers out all day. Our co-op met from 9:30 to 11:30, and it worked really well.
Once you have your basics covered, you'll want to organize your co-op in a way that will keep it successful long term. My mother-in-law is one of the founders of Catholic Schoolhouse, and she has also been a part of several educational co-ops. We have spent many hours on the phone discussing this question: Why do co-ops fail? The answer is sometimes disorganization, but an even more common cause of failure is burn-out. The Catholic Schoolhouse program is designed to sidestep both of these common downfalls. You can set up your co-op to avoid them as well.
Ok, here are some tip for running a thriving homeschool co-op!
Everyone involved needs to volunteer in some way. In a traditional co-op, no one is being paid for their time. Most of the work will fall on the shoulders of the organizers and teachers, but every parent involved should be expected to help in some way. A co-op really should be a team effort! Obviously you'll need teachers, substitute teachers, and classroom assistants. Other parents can volunteer to help send out email reminders, plan special events like Christmas parties, run the nursery, go shopping for supplies, bring snacks, etc. Find jobs for everyone. This is important. If all the work is falling on the shoulders of the same people, the co-op will not be successful long term.
Appreciate your teachers! Besides everyone having a job and a job for everyone, be sure to show appreciation for your co-op teachers. It's a lot of work! You can send emails telling them what a great job they're doing, bring "teacher gifts" for Christmas, and collect money from all the parents for a small end-of-the-year gift. Nobody wants their work to go unnoticed. ;-)
Having a nursery is a necessity. Don't even think about organizing a co-op for Catholic homeschoolers without a nursery. Seriously. It is not ok to ask the teachers to keep their littles with them, and it's not ok to expect them to hire babysitters. The nursery should be parent led. You'll need one organizer, and many volunteers. Small babies can stay with their mothers in the classroom in slings or strollers, but anyone who's old enough to want to get down and be a disruption should be in the nursery or a preschool class. As long as we're on the topic of little kids, having a baby or being pregnant is not an excuse to not volunteer with the co-op. We're Catholic. We have babies all the time. Life goes on. (I'd like to clarify what I meant here: Everyone should be contributing at their own capacity. A co-op has to be a team effort. If you're too pregnant to teach, you can still volunteer to send emails or bring a snack. If you literally have no capacity to contribute at all, a co-op might not be for you at this stage of your life. You could look into joining something more like Catholic Schoolhouse or Classical Conversations where you pay those who do the work, and therefore you don't have to volunteer)
Offer multiple grade levels. It's quite convenient to show up at one time and have all the kids get what they need at once. Every co-op can't offer all grades (in fact, I've been a part of 2 co-ops that were for preschoolers only), but offering multiple grades is a big plus. That being said, you should decide on a required age level for joining. For example, if you run a co-op that goes preschool through highschool, I would recommend having the preschool available for younger siblings only (meaning you can't join with only preschoolers. You'll just overflow and it won't work long-term.)
Control class size. I would suggest a class size of no more than 8-10 children per "class". If you have more than this, consider making more classes. You'll have to wait and see who signs up before you can split the kids into classes. Of course you'll be splitting by age, but another factor you might consider is splitting by abilities (such as splitting the readers and non-readers rather than going strictly by age alone.)
Collect dues. Don't rely solely on parents bringing in supplies, etc. You should set a monthly fee per child or family to participate. Our pre-school co-op charged $15/month per family. Decide on something fair. You'll need to cover supplies, snacks, location expenses, etc.
Collect an up-front joining fee. This is not the first month's dues, this is a start up fee. It will help with buying supplies for the year, and will also help with commitment to the group. You don't want parents flaking out on you.
Draw up some papers. Another way you can help with commitment to the group is to draw up some simple co-op papers. Decide on a sick policy, a dress code, and a basic attendance policy. Find out if the kids have allergies etc. Putting this stuff on paper among a group of friends might feel silly, but I promise if you don't there will always be "that mom" who is showing up late saying "Sorry I'm late- my 2 year old was throwing up on the way out the door. I don't know what got into her." Sick policies are important.
Shut down for the holidays. Don't try and schedule classes too close to Christmas, etc. It's just too much. I would actually recommend shutting down for most of December and January. I have found that class gets cancelled so much during this time (due to sickness and travel) that it's hardly worth trying to meet at all.
Co-op classes are not mommy socialization time. It's not ok for the classroom assisatants to stand in the back of the room visiting during class. I find that very often, moms get involved with co-ops as a way to meet other homeshcoolers and socialize. It can be a great idea to have a meeting location after co-op is over (like a near by park) that everyone can bring a picnic lunch to. This will cut down on the need to chit-chat during class.
Give homeschoolers a good name! If you're collecting dues, you should be able to make a donation to your venue at the end of the year as a "thank you". This shows you appreciate their generosity with the building and makes it more likely that they'll let you return next year. Be sure to always leave the place nicer than you found it. If there are other people in the building (like parish staff) while you meet, don't let class changes be chaos! Give homeschoolers a good name. Teach them to walk in lines and be quiet in the hallways. We want to show the world that homeschoolers and well behaved and polite! :-)
Start and end on time. It's not ok to always start late and run over. This causes standing around at the beginning, and overloaded kids at the end. For our group, dismissal time was chaos. As a result, we made a rule that once you had your kid an their papers, you were expected to leave immediately. For those who still want to visit, they should arrange another time for socialization.
Remember that you can't please everyone. Don't kill yourself trying.
*All the tips shared here are my own opinions based on watching co-ops that thrive, and co-ops that fail, and talking to others about their experiences. You can certainly run your co-op however you think is best, and every group has different needs!*
Hope these tips will help your homeschool co-op to thrive! I taught at our preschool co-op last year and had an absolute blast! You can find my book with Catholic curriculum for a preschool co-op class here, and you can read more about the curriculum available through Catholic Schoolhouse here. Being a part of co-ops has been great for my kids, and I look forward to being a part of them for years to come!
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