Co-op Life: Why I Love It
(Originally Published in HFP Newsletter — November 2011)
By Shannon Rhoads
Wow … it’s year #4 for our family here at HFP, and I can’t believe I’m in the final stretch of our cooperative preschool experience. It’s been a really rewarding journey that will stick with me forever. Maybe this seems obvious to others, but I only recently began to see our co-op as a kind of social experiment. The phrase “it takes a village to raise a child” is something many of us pay lip service to, but we rarely if ever have the opportunity to test it in any real way.
At HFP, 28 families elect every year to run a school together. I’m not sure everyone sees it quite that way when they enroll, but that’s really what it boils down to. It’s true we have a framework and culture already in place from previous years and we have an indispensable visionary and leader in our teacher, Susan Eisman. That said, I believe our program’s success lies less in following certain routines or a formula, and more in truly connecting with each other around a common goal — in this case, raising our children.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how the things that I love most about HFP, the things that make it really special and rewarding, didn’t come right away. At times I have felt challenged more than I expected to be or even thought I wanted to be. But, like all of my best life experiences, the stuff that felt challenging at first turned out to be the stuff that taught me, shaped me as a person and lead me to the deepest connections.
Take for example our role as parent helpers. In a traditional school, teacher’s assistants or parent helpers are there to support the teacher and rarely play a leadership role in the classroom. At HFP, our teacher excels at setting the stage for creativity and learning, but she intention- ally allows parents and children to take center stage in many situations. Her role is more of guide and mentor than director. She is a consistent and grounding force throughout our day, but she encourages our parents to be fully engaged and trusts that they too have good instincts and vision.
For many, being in charge of more than one or two preschoolers can feel new and overwhelming at first. What’s wonderful about our program is that we have so many opportunities to learn from each other. Through observation and brainstorming with our teacher and other parent helpers, as well as plenty of trial and error, I have learned a ton. I still have plenty of questions and learning to do, but I can honestly say that I feel more confident in my role as a parent today because of this co-op experience. And as an added bonus, being in charge of a group of energetic children is something I feel quite comfortable with now and even look forward to.
If I think back to when I first enrolled my daughter at HFP, I didn’t choose the program because I wanted to improve my skills or personally get something out of it. My decision at that time was focused on what my daughter needed and whether the program felt like a good fit for her. In joining a co-op, I knew I was agreeing to several new roles and responsibilities, but I just thought about them as a valuable investment in my child.
Over time, I have come to realize that a co-op like ours helps parents learn and grow, not just children. Beyond parenting skills, my jobs for the school have helped remind me of the things I’m good at besides being a mom and helped me to connect with other parts of my identity again. It’s easy to lose sight of oneself during these parenting years, particular as a stay at home mom. Helping to run a school has given me a sense of purpose outside of my family, which I think is good for them and for me.
Being a part of a tight-knit community like ours is also an incredible opportunity to build something bigger than just a school program. Families in a co-op tend to get very close because we really do play together. We get to know (and love!) each other’s children through parent-helping. There is also a greater level of trust between us because we all work so closely together. It’s a wonderful feeling watching my children deepen relationships with people that I feel connected to as well. I also have a much greater ability to help them navigate these relationships when I have some personal insight to offer.
As a community, we can give each other friendship and support, both emotional and material. I would encourage our families to reach out for playdates, arrange childcare swaps, share ideas and resources, and generally just tap into the positive energy that comes from connecting with each other around the children we love.
The rewards of being in a strong cooperative like ours are great, but, like most good things, require patience and active participation. Our program evolves over the year to reflect the spirit and efforts of its members. It takes time for 28 families to find their rhythm with each other and to build the kind of tight-knit community that makes HFP work. The great news is that year after year our members do make it work and, for that matter, make it work really well.
I am so grateful to have been a part of such a deeply rewarding experience.