Preschool tuition can consume a huge chunk of your salary (not to mention the college fund), especially in Brooklyn where supply lags behind demand. So many parents band together to form co-op preschools where the tuition is minimal, the teacher is of your choosing, and the classroom rotates between parents’ homes.
Generally, groups congregate based on age and geography, gathering participants by word of mouth or ads on listservs like Park Slope Parents. Ruth Carter, who started her own co-op preschool in Park Slope when her daughter was two and has since advised many other groups, says a six-month difference between the oldest and youngest kid feels right. “It can be dangerous to have too wide a range because of the toys,” she says.
Finding the right kids—and parents—can be tricky. Few groups sign anything or have liability insurance. “At our initial meeting I looked at everyone and said nobody is suing anybody,” says Carter. You may need to discuss everything from allergies to pets and peanuts to parenting styles, how they feel about pacifiers or plastic versus wooden toys.
Most co-ops hire a teacher—the biggest expense—and have a parent-aid who rotates. In some groups, one parent works a full week or two, when the co-op takes place at his or her home. In others, one parent handles all Tuesdays, another Wednesdays, etc. Your group might allow you to have your babysitter work during your slot, if you plan to work full time. Others prefer parents be present.
Carter suggests contacting career centers of graduate schools like Bank Street College of Education to fish for a teacher. In her group, each of the five families paid $50 a week for three mornings of school, from 9:30 to 12:30; $40 went to the teacher and $10 into a kitty for snacks and field trips.
Sharon Lerner, author of The War on Moms: On Life in a Family-Unfriendly Nation, has one child in a co-op preschool that meets in the finished basement of her Prospect Park South home for three-hour stretches a day. The families share in the cost of the teacher–roughly $30 an hour plus 2 hours a week for prep time, with additional money initially for incidentals. “Everyone chipped in in the beginning to buy art supplies and toys,” she says.
Most people pay off the books, in part because they’re not sure how legal the set-up is. New York State law stipulates that if you care for more than two unrelated children for more than 3 hours per day, you have to register with the Department of Health as a family day care provider. Most groups meet for 3 hours or less to to avoid state scrutiny (which is highly unlikely) and limit the number of kids to roughly 6 because of space. “With the size of Brooklyn apartments, I felt that no parent would feel that overwhelmed with five bodies and two adults,” says Carter. “More than that and it would seem like a tornado.”
Clinton Hill’s Co-op School, on the other hand, grew out of a full-time co-op, held in the basement of a brownstone they rented. The dedicated space fostered a sense of stability for the kids, made transporting toys and art projects a non-issue, and circumvented the possibility of one parent’s sickness interrupting class time (if, say, it happened to be that parent’s day or week to host preschool).
The Co-op’s founding families registered initially as a “group family day care,” which can offer full day care in a residential setting so long as there are 12 or fewer kids taught by two registered providers. It’s actually not that difficult to become a provider–registration is free, though requesting an application and getting it processed can take roughly four months, and the provider must take a 3-day, $200 safety training course. And if you’re inspected before you are registered–a big if–you just get a warning. Really, the biggest issue you need to consider, says the Co-op School’s director, Meredith Gray, are your neighbors. Her sage advice: “You should make sure that they know what you are doing, and if they are home during the day, set up respectful boundaries. They can make your life incredibly uncomfortable if they hate you.”
As the Co-op School grew up, the families clearly defined their educational philosophy, structure and responsibilities in a handbook. (An early edition is attached for anyone getting serious.)
This is at the most organized level of a co-op preschool–full-time day care with teachers and very active parent participation. The reality is this model is extremely difficult to duplicate for most parents, who only have the bandwidth to organize three or four hours of care in the mornings, a couple of days a week. “It’s long enough to get an errand done,” says Carter. “It’s not a daycare replacement.” Which is often why people will refer to it as playschool or playgroup.
The key to success, says Carter, is to manage expectations. This is a co-op, not a ticket to Harvard. “I just wanted socialization for my daughter and couldn’t afford that in a private preschool,” Carter says. “I didn’t expect her to learn her ABCs.”
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