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September-October 2006 Selected Content

Keys to a Successful Co-op - Wendy Roberts

Every year we have homeschooled, we have participated in several homeschool co-ops. Holidays and unit studies are more fun with a group. Of course any time several homeschool families are gathered together in the name of education, a master plan is a must. Since it is far superior to learn from others' mistakes, here are tips for a successful homeschool co-op based on the successes and failures of the co-ops I have been part of.

Something for Everyone

My seven children all have different needs. My oldest children need challenging work and social opportunities. They need to be inspired to work hard and stretch themselves. They need mentors and teachers outside of Mom. My little ones need to be close to Mom in a safe environment where they can play. They need to eat frequently (sometimes all the time). My middle children need to develop their skills and be encouraged in fun ways to memorize and use their skills. A good co-op has something for each age group.

Separate Nursery with Toys

You need at least two moms to help with the nursery. There should be a craft, game, or activity and singing time as well as free time with the toys. It is hard to be the nursery mom all the time unless there is good communication about what is going on in the older classes so you can follow up at home. Email works really well for this. Trading the nursery responsibilities every hour is ideal.

One co-op I belonged to had the children all in one room, the little ones in a corner playing. The hope was that the little ones would get something out of the big kids' lesson. But the little ones would get loud in their toy play and disturb the learning of the older group.

A co-op that worked well had three classes and four families. Each mom had a time in the nursery, taught one class and had one hour off to participate as desired or help with a group that needed it.

Divide Loosely by Age

Division should be based loosely on age because age does not always measure skill level. One group had an age-ten limit but had an eight-year-old who was a real asset to the group. He was able to accomplish the required projects and participate in a meaningful way with the group. He was also an inspiration to my eight-year-old to stretch and participate in a meaningful way. This can also work the opposite way and there can be children who are well within the age limit who are not ready for the required work.

Do Big Projects Together

I love to do big projects in a co-op. We got an incubator from the 4-H office and some eggs and hatched them together. It was a great group activity and let us all experience the joy of new life without giving one family the whole burden. Another was pinhole cameras, an expensive project on which we were able to split the cost.

Enough Space

My favorite co-op for space was in a church. We had the whole building and used the stage and gym for the exercise and drama classes. We also used the church's nursery and toys. We divided the cost of renting the building between all the families that participated, making it affordable. It was good for the church because they were able to have us do some of their cleaning during the week. The cleaning list was very specific and three families were assigned each week to stay after and clean. We also took the garbage home each week saving the church money on garbage disposal fees.

No Longer Than Ten Weeks

A good amount of time for any co-op is about nine weeks. The kids and moms all start burning out after that. Another approach solves the problem by changing topics every six weeks. Take a couple weeks off between each topic to give everyone time to recuperate for the next session.

Communicate Problems Early

Don't wait until you're mad. It's always better to speak up when you can still do it calmly or even with a smile. This one is critical.

Rules and Order

Clear and precise ground rules will stave off contention.

Divide the Work Equally

The work of a co-op can be overwhelming. Distributing the work evenly ensures that no one is left doing it all.

One group had one person pay the deposit on the building. That person tried to clean up after the group to preserve her investment while others thoughtlessly left their messes. In one severe case a child came sick and threw up in a corner without telling anyone. The mess was found by one of the owners of the building after the group had left. It was horribly embarrassing to the deposit-payer and a slap in the face to the owners of the building. Hard work was necessary to repair the relationship and restore their good opinion. Avoid messy problems by making a weekly clean-up assignment chart.

Maximize the Skills of the Participants

This is a great reason for a co-op. We all have strengths and talents, educational and experiential differences, that will only enhance the learning of our children as a group. I try to volunteer in a group the things I am strong in while letting others do things that would challenge me. For example, our family studies astronomy as a hobby. We have spent a lot of time observing under our telescope and created six fun games to teach astronomy concepts. They're easy for me to teach in a group setting but would be difficult for someone without my experience. Teaching Spanish, on the other hand, would require a lot of prep time and stress for me to accomplish. Sometimes it is fun to learn new things but plan accordingly.

My last word is something my husband has to remind me of: We are homeschoolers. If you compared homeschooling to the food pyramid then co-ops should be the tip. We must limit our group activities to keep our sanity and educational goals intact.

© 2006, Wendy Roberts

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