“There’s a fairly stringent code and byzantine process for getting certified and code-compliant,” said City Councilman Brad Lander, a Democrat from Brooklyn, whose office held a meeting over the summer for any co-ops interested in pooling their resources and securing permits. “Some are genuinely for the safety of kids, and some are more debatable.”
We began our first year full of optimism. We hired a teacher with a soft voice and warm smile who had studied at a respected teaching college and specialized in social-emotional development. Twice a week for three hours, the children sang songs, made sculpture with homemade play dough and, when they had trouble expressing themselves, used a box that had faces with different emotions pasted on each side to help articulate things like “I feel frustrated.” Each family took turns hosting the school in their home for five weeks — two in the fall, three in the spring. That involved rearranging furniture, preparing balanced snacks, assisting the teacher and cleaning up afterward, which took up 10 to 12 hours a week.
In the winter, two families moved away and were quickly replaced by two others. Our teacher thought one of our new children needed her own aide. We original six families talked among ourselves to figure out how to proceed but ended up going around in circles: Was an aide necessary? Were we saying that if the family did not get an aide, the child would have to leave? If we did hire an aide, would the one family pay for it or would we all shoulder the burden? Were we willing to authorize our teacher to make assessments like this one?
Then things got ugly. Our broad existential questions spawned a maelstrom of 53 e-mails over four days that laid bare personal, cultural and socioeconomic biases and that pitted us against one another. E-mails previously had sign-offs like “love to all”; now they had words like “breach of ethics” and “priorities.” Some members supported the structure we had set up, in which parents acted as administrators while the teacher oversaw day-to-day operations. Other members felt that our setup had gone astray and that a teacher requiring something of one family gave her more weight in the co-op than the family had.
Two families withdrew from the school over what boiled down to a difference in the way we defined the word “co-operative.”
“I think what happened is we all thought we were on the same page,” said Piper Harrell, whose family left the school over this issue and ultimately decided to home school their child. “What really rocked my soul was that I thought I knew people and I didn’t know people all of a sudden, and that made me really sad. To be in a community like that was messier than I think people were able to let it be.”
Spring was brutal. A new family joined, but pulling extra shifts to support the co-op in our homes was overwhelming. We did what we could to make it to June, but we ended our school year three weeks early.
Emotionally burned and mentally depleted, my husband and I vowed never to do it again.
But then my son turned 4, and it felt as if the Department of Education left us with no alternative. We and the few families left over from our last co-op regained our composure and started again. Our goal was to have a complete school year, so we tried to minimize the ways in which we could get shut down. Operating out of our homes was a logistical nightmare, so we sought a neutral space. We explored the possibility of going legit and determined that it was too labor-intensive and cost-prohibitive for four families to attempt. Even if several co-ops joined forces, we were unlikely to navigate the red tape by September.
Though it was difficult, we managed to find a small, sunny performance space that was not used during the day. We stayed off the radar, filling a number of our seats by word of mouth. We wrote a handbook to lay out our goals; it bans e-mail communication and encourages face-to-face dialogue. We adapted contracts from the Internet to help us set clear expectations for parents and the teacher. We demanded deposits. We were ready for school, and we crossed our fingers that we would make it to June.
A month and a half after we opened our doors, the public school on my block called to say that a family had moved to New Jersey. A seat was open for my son.
I imagined all the free time I would get back if he went, and all the stress I would avoid. But I also had to think of our co-op. Leaving would put a financial strain on the other families. Another family could throw off the dynamics, and the trust that was just in its nascent phase. Our school was meeting just three hours a day, after which my son took a midday nap. At the public school, sessions ran from 8:20 a.m. to 3:10 p.m. I worried that he would not be able to adjust.
We ultimately declined the spot, even though his attending the public pre-K would have more or less guaranteed him a seat in the kindergarten class — and the previous year the school had ended up with a kindergarten waiting list for the first time in 30 years.
The day after we declined the seat, I went to pick up my son from the co-op. On our way home, we passed the public school and I told my son, “One day, you might go to school here.” He responded by stopping in his tracks long enough to stomp his feet and emphatically yell, “No!”
He did not want to leave his friends, he told me, and he did not want to leave his teacher. I was thrilled by how positive he was about the experience and felt drunk on my first clear view of our school’s success. Then my mind flitted to a vision of a future co-op university running out of our living rooms. The moment we got home, I called our local school’s secretary and asked her when the first day of kindergarten registration would be.