In my last post, I talked about some of the rites of passage, as I call them, of a homeschooling journey. Those rites include buying misfit curriculum, sharing “the decision” with family and friends, and joining some sort of network or co-op. Like the commercial says, it’s what we do. To be sure, there are excellent reasons to join a co-op. But sometimes, a bit of homework up front can preserve our sanctity—before we lose our sanity.
Why should/ would you consider a homeschool co-op?
- Relationship. Homeschooling is inherently isolating, and co-ops can provide an opportunity to fellowship—both for you and your children. There you sit amongst a group of people with whom you immediately have in common a significant part of your life. You learn, you share, and you enter a perfect environment to build friendships. And please, don’t discount the potential for some of these folks to become life-long friends. I can remember when one of the moms in a co-op we once belonged to became hospitalized for an extended period. I was one of several moms who signed up to cook and deliver food to her family. Years later, our children still keep up with one another.
- Reassurance. In part because of the isolation, the self-doubt of a new homeschooler can be maddening. Having a group with whom you can talk about approaches, curriculum, etc., is invaluable. Again, that whole learn/share dynamic will not happen at home alone as it might when you are inside a group.
3. Filling of gaps. A co-op can be academic in nature, recreational in nature, formed for a specific interest, or some combination of the above. If you homeschool an only child, perhaps a group that frequents the parks or theaters might be just what you and your child need to make your time together more enjoyable. Perhaps you need an academic co-op such that you can barter your skills in trade for someone else’s in a given area. Or maybe your child needs iron to sharpen his iron as a robotics or coding enthusiast, or as a watcher of birds or collector of butterflies.
Before you “gas up the Pacer” and head to your first meeting, however, you might want to think about these factors and save yourself a bad experience:
- “Mom”petition. What starts out as reassurance can go quickly awry amongst an environment filled with insecurity. I often say tongue-in-cheek that if you peruse social media networks, every home educating mom would have you think that her kids are at home curing cancer and finding the solution to the common cold. For sure, there are wonderfully gifted kids in the homeschooling community, but sometimes all you really need is to meet the mom whose kid put his shoes on the wrong feet, grab a coffee and to hear her say, “It’s alright.”
- Strong personalities. Any group will take on the personality of its most vocal members (whether they are leaders or not). Even the most well-meaning parent can unintentionally take over a co-op. As a personal example, I once belonged to a group in which the families were asked, as we had the means, to consider giving a few extra dollars occasionally to help families who couldn’t always pay for their children to join us on field trips. It was a small kitty, but effective as far as I knew. Then, one mom decided that we should have a fundraiser (I HATED fundraising from our private school days). As the new kid on the block, I chose compliance over rebellion, and most of the other moms chose silence. To make a long story short, by the end of this fundraising campaign, we had hundreds of dollars with no group bank account and not a clue of what to do with this kind of excess money. And, as these things happen, the mom who got us marching soon moved away, and we were left to laughingly scratch our collective heads and wonder how we got there in the first place.
- Cost to family intimacy. I truly believe that the operative word in ‘homeschool’ is “home,” and then school becomes an offshoot of the dynamics that already occur within the family. That said, if the activities within the co-op become overwhelming in terms of time, the environment created is more like the traditional school environment we left. I can remember a dear friend of mine whose son participated in our city-wide homeschool sports co-op. Between the multiple practices, travel to and from the games, and the family’s general fatigue, her comment was, “We don’t get to have school.” Her plight is not uncommon. Some co-ops can take over, and if the spirit is contrary to what you want to create in your home, some of your new friends might have been better left alone.
We found a whole new world of possibilities in joining a co-op in the early days—resources for testing, field trips, curriculum advice, opportunities for service…the list could go on for a while. Yet, we also found after a while that preparing to go to our primarily recreational co-op—packing bikes, snacks, strollers, etc., just took too much time for the couple of hours we were there. That was my experience. The kids’ experience was that they were fine just hanging out among themselves, and didn’t need to venture out for the sake of meeting new people (and yes, some of what we met was not consistent with what we wanted to cultivate at home). A homeschool co-op can be a marvelous resource, especially in the earliest days when the need for others of like mind is high. They can be equally helpful as your homeschooling season changes.
As kids grow, and needs change, the co-op can be a viable alternative to whatever is your normal routine. The key is to understand when the nature of the co-op is potentially toxic to your family, and to exit quickly and gracefully. In other words, when it comes to co-ops, follow the advice of that Kenny Rogers tune: ‘…know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em.’
What experiences have you had with the good, bad, and ugly of co-op environments?