Our co-op grew out of a weekly, area-wide "Activity Day" offered by our homeschool support group. It offered a variety of classes for 8 weeks each semester which ranged from scrapbooking to ballet to German to aeronautics. As my children grew older and their studies became more time-consuming, it became harder and harder to justify spending several hours a week in subjects which were essentially just-for-fun "add-ons" to our regular curricula. A group of moms began kicking around the idea of a more structured day which would focus on academics. We would share the burden of teaching; each mom could teach in her area of giftedness; and our children would benefit by the opportunity to learn from other teachers, be accountable to a more structured schedule, and experience the fun of group learning.
A number of moms came to the first organizational meeting and we agreed that we'd like to teach Latin, history, writing and science. Five of us finally made the commitment to join the co-op. That first year was fun in a lot of ways. Our eldest student was in 8th grade and the youngest was preschool, so we were pretty relaxed. We did lots of hands-on projects in history; my two-year-old wandered from class to class throughout the afternoon; and I completed my Beth Moore bible studies during my break! We spent a lot of time preparing for a Medieval Feast in which all guests came dressed in costume; we ate "authentic" Medieval fare; and the kids performed plays, dances, and displayed their work. That spring we all took a road trip to a Renaissance Festival to cap off the school year.
We realized, however, that we would have to require more accountability from our students. Teachers did not grade work that first year, so if moms had a busy week or students were unmotivated during a particular week, they would come in without their homework. The teachers found it very difficult to teach unprepared students. During Year 2, we began report cards and became a little more rigorous in our expectations. We held a big Pilgrim Thanksgiving feast in the fall and began performing the American Girl plays for our end-of-semester banquets as we reached the appropriate era.
Each year we had some moms bow out of the co-op and new moms join in. We added or deleted classes, such as Art or PowerPoint, based on the students' ages and interests. We learned the importance of clearly communicating our expectations and goals to new members. During Year 3, there was a good deal of conflict over course and teacher expectations as well as conflict among some of the 4th-8th grade girls. We had a stressful couple of months before it all worked itself out. Afterward, we made the decision to personally invite families whom we felt shared our academic goals and mindset, rather than extending the "come one, come all" invitation we had offered in the past, and we decided to cap membership at 10 families. When a co-op gets larger than that, you are really dealing with a whole different ballgame: the organizational challenges increase, the space requirements increase, and the potential for conflict multiplies with each family added to the group.
Our co-op is currently beginning its 5th year. We have classes for grades K-10 and we meet once a week from 10am-3pm at a local church building. We begin the first week in August, which is painfully early, but it allows us to take off the week of Thanksgiving through the week of New Year. We then meet January through the end of April. We also have two 1-week breaks each semester, for a total of 29 weeks. Each family is free to determine how they work in the remaining 7 weeks of the school year, and that time allows us each the opportunity to focus on family school subjects and other at-home projects.
Our co-op has a changed a lot over five years and it's been difficult at times, but we have now reached a point of equilibrium where peace generally reigns and things run pretty smoothly. We have a website (actually a wikipage which all the teachers can access and edit) and this is where we send moms who express an interest in joining the co-op. Many read the expectations and realize our co-op would not work for their family. Others read the website and find that the co-op provides the perfect blend of "home" and "school" that their children need. If you are considering beginning a co-op of your own, here are my suggestions:
*You'll need someone who communicates well to be a planner and an organizer. She'll be the one to create the schedule, calendar, phone list, etc. and make sure each school year gets rolling again.
*You'll need to decide how to handle co-op expenses. Our co-op treasurer collects $50 per family per school year and purchases copy paper, construction paper, art supplies, building fees, etc with the money.
*Clearly define your expectations for teachers, students, and attendance in writing. You will continue to change and refine your expectations from year to year, but this is the only way to be certain everyone is "on the same page".
*Plan on conflict and be flexible. There were semesters where it seemed the co-op might completely fall apart, but there was always a core group which was committed to the goals of the co-op and made it work. We were able to push through the tough times by remaining flexible, open to change, and giving each other lots of grace!
My kids love co-op, and I think it's also one of the reasons they really enjoy homeschooling. It keeps our family accountable to our educational goals; it allows my children the benefit of learning from teachers who are gifted in areas which are not my strengths; and it allows them the opportunity to challenge and be challenged by their peers in a positive environment. Our co-op has been both a challenge and a blessing to our family, and it's a homeschool option I can highly recommend.