Giving and getting: The rewards of joining a co-operative preschool

Hands-on classroom involvement, community relationships just a few
of the benefits

Your toddler is already walking, talking, and putting on his own shoes – suddenly junior kindergarten doesn’t seem that far away. A preschool is a great place for your new little big kid to learn to interact with their peers, understand how a classroom works, and have fun.

First-time parents can be intimidated by the options available. A co-op preschool is, as our family has found, a very rewarding experience for both parents and child.

You’ll have the chance to get involved with your child’s learning environment, to meet parents with similar interests, and to make a difference in your community.

There are around 15 co-operative preschools in the Ottawa region and most offer programs for two, three and four-year-olds. They all require parents to become members of the co-operative, which means you’ll be doing part of the work of keeping the school running. There are three main obligations for members, but countless rewards, too.

Duty Days: Seeing Your Child in a Whole New World

Your major commitment as a member parent is to perform duty days. You’ll spend the morning in the classroom, set up the snack you’ve brought and clean up afterwards. You’ll write names on artwork, help put on costumes, and mop the floor when school is done.

“Duty days” are special events for you and your child. He’ll be so excited when it’s his day for Mommy or Daddy to stay, or her day to provide her favourite food for snack time. It’s so heartwarming to see the joy on your child’s face as they show you their favourite parts of the classroom, and introduce you to their teachers and best buddies. You can have your own fun too, by taking the opportunity to share your own life with the class – by playing a musical instrument, leading a yoga class, or even bringing in the family pet.

You might be amazed to see a whole new side to your child. It’s a chance to catch a glimpse of how they interact with others in a group situation. You can get a feel for how well they listen to the teachers, and how shy or outgoing they are in a school setting – you may be surprised to find your cautious little guy jumping in at circle time, or your rambunctious little girl sitting patiently as she waits for her turn with the blocks.

The number of duty days you’ll have in a year depends on the number of students in your child’s class, and the number of days per week they attend. At Bells Corners Co-Operative, you’ll be assigned four or five duty days a year in their morning three-year-old programs; at Glebe Community and Westboro Village Cooperative, smaller class sizes for their programs mean eight to 10 duty days per year.

Fundraising: We’re All In This Together

Most co-operative preschools have a fundraising obligation. These funds are critical to the survival of the school – even small amounts of money make a huge difference when the annual operating budget is less than six figures. It can be surprisingly easy to meet your obligation, given the variety of events and sales campaigns involved. From food items to magazines to flower seeds, there’s usually something for everyone.

Many preschools also host family activity nights as a fun way to get involved. Often a school will host a “dinner out” night, where a portion of your restaurant bill goes to the school, or a shopping night in which a certain store will open after hours and give a discount to parents and cut to the school.

At Metcalfe Cooperative, for example, you’ll get to participate in their three annual fundraising events – two consignment sales, and a family breakfast/silent auction. These events raise money for the school, but are also a great way to connect with other parents at the school and to help your children feel involved. They build your community and help your child feel as though you’re all in this together.

Most preschools will allow you to skip the whole thing for an opt-out fee. At Glen Cairn Cooperative, you can fundraise via traditional sales campaigns, or you can opt out for $150. At Riverside Park, every family pays a supply fee of $125, thus eliminating any fundraising pressure and greatly reducing the amount of fundraising work required by parents.

Committee Work: Making a Difference on Your Own Schedule 

The last major commitment for member families is committee work. There are a wide variety of jobs that need to be done to keep the school going, from toy cleaning to gardening to distributing advertising flyers.

At Metcalfe Cooperative, housekeeping duties are shared by all and any parent may be asked to make play dough or do laundry; at Community Cooperative in Nepean, you’ll be assigned a specific role such as preparing crafts, baking snacks for the mandatory annual members’ meeting, or taking inventory of the school’s toys and equipment. All co-operative preschools require their members to take on at least one committee role.

The good news is that there are such a wide variety of jobs available that the school is happy to accommodate your work or home life schedules. Maybe you’ll spend an evening cutting out paper snowmen in front of the TV; maybe you’ll rake sand in the play yard one spring weekend.  Some jobs run all year long, for those parents who are able to make a big contribution to their child’s school; others who have busy lives and work commitments may be asked to give up one evening or one weekend for the year.

It’s tough to give up some of your hard-earned downtime to volunteer, but it’s more rewarding than you might think. You’ll discover that a co-op is a great way to share the school experience with your child, to develop a community of parents with similar interests, and yes, to have fun yourself.

Author: Lynn Jatania

Photo: Lynn Jatania