Friday, March 13, 2015

Co-op Nuts & Bolts: How Our School Works

In my last post here, I gave my best shot at what I think would be the first steps to starting your own cooperative preschool. In this second post, I'm going to try to simply describe the nuts and bolts of how our school works.

If you're entirely unfamiliar with our model, please take a look at my Cooperative Manifesto in which I attempted back during the dawn of my blog to provide a sort of socio-economic-political context for what we do.

How our school works . . .
The parents own the school, so they are the ones who hire, pay, and evaluate. In other words, as the teacher, and only paid employee, I have 60+ bosses. At the same time, a big part of my job is instructing and managing these same parents as they work in the classroom as assistant teachers. We are affiliated with North Seattle College, along with some 40 other cooperative preschools, a relationship through which we receive our insurance, administrative and marketing support, executive training, and most importantly, parent education.

As is true with most cooperatives, our tuition is quite low, which is made possible because parent involvement is quite high.

Parent Responsibilities
Parents enrolled in our school take on 3 main responsibilities.

  • Parent meetings: The entire adult community convenes once a month, in the evening, at a "parent meeting," half of which is spent on the business of running the co-op, the other half on parent education under the instruction of a parent educator provided by the college. Our parents are technically enrolled as students at the college. This is credit-earning classroom time dedicated to helping parents become better parents and, importantly for our school, better teachers. When families move on from our school, they often cite the parent education as the thing they miss the most. The parent educator also attends class once a week to work with parents in a classroom setting.
  • Parent jobs: Each family takes on one of the dozens of outside the classroom "jobs" necessary to make the school run. Some choose a position on the board, which is generally more work, but with the compensation that you don't need to to take a turn in the weekly weekend school cleaning rotation. Our all-school board is new this year. In the past, we've operated each of our "classes" as separate schools, with their own boards. Other parent jobs might include things like field trip coordinator, photographer, gardener, teacher's assistant, purchaser, maintenance, or fundraiser.
  • Work in the classroom as assistant teacher: Each family provides an adult to work in the classroom as an assistant teacher once a week under my instruction and supervision. Most often this adult is a mother, although fathers, grandparents, and even paid caregivers sometimes take on this responsibility depending on what works best for the families.

Classroom schedule and parent roles
I teach three classes -- Pre-3's, 3's, and 4-5's. Rachel Troutman will teach our new kindergarten next year. I'm going to use our 3's class in my examples where our child-adult ratios are about 3:1. Our ratio in the Pre-3 class is 2:1, while it's about 4:1 in the 4-5's.

  • Discovery Time: We start our day with an indoor free play period featuring a number of "stations," such as art, blocks, sensory, drama, table toys, and snack. Each station is the primary responsibility of a parent-teacher. Ideally, as parents arrive, I take a moment to fill-in the parent-teachers about my expectations for their stations for the day, instructions (if necessary), and what to look for both in terms of individual children or group dynamics. During this time, I expect the parent-teachers to stick to their stations and to focus on the children, limiting their adult conversations. I rotate through the stations in a kind of intuitive pattern, striving to be where I'm most needed, role-model teacher behavior, and get some time with each of the kids.
  • Clean-up:  Just before I beat the drum that signals our first transition of the day, I make the rounds of the stations, if necessary, to let the parent-teachers know my expectations for how their station should be cleaned-up. While there are some aspects adults need to handle (e.g., sanitizing, really getting paint brushes clean, etc.) the onus is primarily on the children to put the school back in order. I often say that this is the core of our curriculum, the time when the children really claim ownership of their classroom, and I don't care if it takes a half hour to complete, I want the children to be in charge of it. One of the biggest challenges for me is convincing the parent-teachers to get out of the way and let the children do it for themselves.
  • Circle time:  This is our daily community meeting, a place for singing songs and telling stories, of course, but also for sharing exciting topics from home, addressing issues in the classroom, or giving compliments to our friends. The parents join us at circle time and I expect them to fully participate (e.g., singing and dancing), while also helping children manage themselves in group settings.
  • Outdoor time: This outdoor free play period also features stations such as workbench, art, sand pit, and garden, again "staffed" by parent-teachers. This outdoor time runs very much like the indoor free-play period.
  • Clean up and story circle: We end our day sitting together again as I read a story before releasing the children to their parents.

I hope this wasn't too terribly dry. In my next post, I hope to get into the more interesting softer tissue of how parents and I work together both inside and outside the classroom.

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