The Co-Op Option

By Sarah Davis Cler

The moment I knew I was in love with co-op preschooling happened at my first school membership meeting, as the parents in our class of 20 discussed general business and student behavioral issues. My son’s teacher addressed a parent in our group about the progress of her son. “Well,” responded the parent, “We’ve finally convinced him that he can only speak cat at home.” It seemed her three-year-old had such a passion for cats that he was completely convinced of his ability to speak the language. Our class proceeded to spend the next 10 or 15 minutes discussing tactics for respecting the boy’s cat/English bilingualism while encouraging him to speak English at school, and transitioning to the realm of associative (versus parallel) play full time. The energy of the room, which had until this point been chiefly business in nature, shifted, and I felt the community converging. This child’s well-being and positive development became a collective goal, a nurturing group project. My parental gut instinct kicked in: this preschool format, this environment, simply felt right.

Co-operative, or parent participation, nursery schools are just one of many options for parents to consider when researching an education for their preschool-aged children. Co-ops are predominantly administered and sustained by the labor hours put in by students’ families. Because parents are essentially swapping some of their monetary obligations for a time commitment, co-op tuition is typically much lower than at non-co-op preschools. A co- op family is usually required to work in the classroom one day a week in addition to performing another ongoing job (such as maintenance of a particular area of the school) outside of classroom time. Parents usually must attend at least one membership meeting a month, which often includes parent education components.

Margie Lawson, a Pre-K teacher and the Director of Redwood Parents Nursery School in Redwood City, is a devoted fan of co-oping and has taught at the facility for 22 years. She admits, “Parents who [enroll in] the co-op system are making a huge commitment,” but for kids, “having their parents [at the school] and supporting them is a huge plus.”

Redwood Parents Nursery School is hitting a milestone in early 2012 as it celebrates its 60th anniversary. The school began in 1952 as a program to educate parents; the preschool component came as an element of the adult program, essentially a “lab” for parents to put their classroom lessons into practice. Sixty years later, RPNS is still literally a little red schoolhouse striving to maintain a less complicated approach to preschool education. They do so by retaining a small farm with rabbits and ducks, eschewing computers in the classroom, and generally, as Lawson puts it, “trying to keep things basic because children learn through play.”

Co-op nursery schools are typically play-based, but have had to make accommodations in the last few years to keep up with the increasingly demanding kindergarten curriculum in California public schools. Most Bay Area co-ops, including RPNS, have quietly incorporated practical preparations for students to meet the demands of kindergarten.

Bunker Hill Nursery School in San Mateo is also working to keep things simple while realistically preparing children for the new rigors of kindergarten. The school tempers its kindergarten “prep” with a strong emphasis on unstructured play and appreciation for nature. Kids at Bunker Hill are encouraged to embark on bug and reptile hunts as much as they are to successfully write their names.

Colleen Niklaus, Bunker Hill alum and parent of a current student and a 2010 graduate, says, “As parents who participate in a co-op preschool, we are beginning a lifelong commitment to our child’s educational career. As a high school teacher, I have discovered that my students who are successful in high school have families that are involved in and value education, and support them in all aspects.” Niklaus is a full-time high school teacher; Bunker Hill collaborates with the Niklaus family to make co-oping viable. Many co-ops in the Bay Area can accommodate families with two working parents by allowing extended family members to put in hours at the school.

What ultimately makes co-ops so appealing to so many is their one-stop shopping nature. “We service the whole family,” says Lawson. “It’s not just a nursery school, and it’s just not a parent education school, it’s both; that’s true for most co-ops.”

The San Mateo Council of Parent Participation Nursery Schools congratulates Redwood Parents Nursery School on its 60th anniversary and looks forward to many more anniversaries for RPNS and the other great co-op preschools on the Peninsula. For more information on parent participation nursery schools, please visit www.

Sarah Davis Cler is currently parenting her preschool-aged son and daughter in Millbrae while gradually embarking on a freelance writing career. She is an avid preschool co-oper and spends her free time reading as much as possible.