Age 2 arrived at our house with a whirlwind of “Look at me!” and tugs on parental limbs. It was time to find my son a preschool, one where he could express that impulse for social contact with other children his age and — eventually — start to prepare for kindergarten.
Having attended a cooperative preschool as a youngster, I remembered that preschool includes parents, not just teachers. I also knew that I wanted to be with my rambunctious son during his first foray into a sociable, structured learning environment. He would be more comfortable, and I would meet other parents of children the same age.
We chose the co-op model for our family for a number of reasons. It was convenient (a variety of locations and schedules), high quality (excellent teachers, a parent-education component and an affiliation with local colleges), inclusive of parents and, very important, affordable.
I also loved the parent involvement. The parents’ role in running the school is a co-op preschool’s most distinct feature. While it’s not for everyone, that level of involvement allows for direct impact on a child’s education and builds community among like-minded parents; that involvement is also what makes co-op preschool tuition from one-half to two-thirds less than many other preschool models.
Cooperative preschool: A short history
The American cooperative preschool model was initiated in 1916 by a group of faculty wives at the University of Chicago, among them Katharine Whiteside Taylor, who was to become a co-op preschool pioneer.
Author of the landmark 1954 "Parents and Children Learn Together," Whiteside Taylor has local ties. In 1941, Seattle Public Schools hired her to create a “family life education” program to provide social education for children and parenting education for parents. The model gained popularity across the state, and in the 1960s became formally affiliated with state colleges and technical schools.
Today, many community colleges and vocational schools in Washington state offer early childhood education classes for parents in addition to a classroom for children, which serves as the “learning lab” to supplement parent education.
What is a co-op preschool and how does it work?
Co-op preschools offer learning environments to children and their parents, with children’s ages ranging from 2 months old to 5 years of age. Although every school is somewhat different, common features of the co-op model include:
Play-based curriculum: The curriculum of a cooperative preschool is play-based and aligned with state learning standards, with each class structured for a specific age group and with corresponding age-appropriate activities and materials. Play-based preschool education is based on research showing that young children learn critical early skills — such as resilience, conflict resolution and sharing — through playing.
Family involvement: As the word “cooperative” indicates, parents are involved in all aspects of running preschools. Parents, nannies or other adult family members serve as co-teachers in the classroom one day a week, helping manage and guide the children at the teacher’s direction.
The presence of the parent in the classroom builds a child’s trust and awareness of the importance and love for learning both at school and at home. Being in the classroom “gives a parent the best opportunity to observe adult and child interactions and get questions answered,” says Seattle Central College parent educator Pam McElmeel.
Parents also form the school’s board, which is responsible for duties such as hiring teachers, increasing tuition and making major school purchases. It’s not as daunting as it sounds. Typically, you step into a role that’s already been established after years of parent participation, with training and documentation passed on by parents who previously held that role.
My extended family gives about 18 hours a month to our four-day-a-week co-op preschool, both in the class (12 hours) and in administrative time outside of class. I manage these responsibilities while also working full-time.
Parent education: The parent education piece is also a significant benefit of the co-op preschool model. Along with the teacher, a trained parent educator (usually an employee of the college affiliated with the preschool) is present in the class. Educators offer invaluable observation and advice to parents, both in class and in special parent-education sessions that can happen monthly or during class.
Several times I have spoken frankly to the educator about my child or our family’s dynamic getting through a tough developmental stage. The educator’s thoughtful advice, based on sound science and pro-family philosophy, has been a lifesaver.
The parent educator also provides support to the school’s teacher; in an effective co-op preschool, the teacher and educator work as a team.
Multiple ages and models: You can find a co-op preschool for children as young as infants up to 5 years old. Co-op classes for infants and toddlers tend to be one or two days a week for 60–90 minutes; the parent also participates.
As the child gets older, the duration and frequency of classes increase, and the parent’s time in class lessens; for most classes, children are dropped off. For example, a 4-year-old might attend co-op preschool four days a week for three hours at a time, with that child’s parent co-teaching one day a week.
Each co-op preschool has its own character, often reflecting the neighborhood where it’s located. For instance, our co-op in Seattle’s North Capitol Hill neighborhood has parents who range from rock musicians to physicians to bookshop owners. We also have single-parent and same-sex-parent households.
Not just for stay-at-home parents: Many co-op preschool networks offer a once-a-week nighttime or weekend preschool option, which can be an excellent choice for working parents. In this model, a parent typically stays with the child, but has fewer administrative duties. Some of these co-op preschools are multi-age, which means two siblings of different ages can enroll in the same class.
Another option for working parents is to share daytime co-op responsibilities with other family members or a nanny. In my family’s case, since my husband and I both work full-time, my stepfather serves as the classroom assistant once a week while I am at work.
Affordable tuition: Co-op preschools offer tuition that typically costs from one-half to two-thirds less than drop-off preschools. While my son has been in co-op preschool, tuition has ranged from about $80 per month for a weekly multi-age class to about $400 per month for a four-day-a-week class for 4-year-olds (with classes that are three hours long). In addition to the tuition, parents are expected to contribute to the annual fundraising event either with their time or a donation.
How to find a co-op preschool and enroll
If your family does have the time to be involved and is excited about the idea of a co-op preschool, now is the time to start looking for a preschool for next year. Here’s how to get started.
Talk to parents in your community. Each preschool has a distinctive character, influenced somewhat on the neighborhood and the families that form the preschool. Here is a list of co-op preschools for Puget Sound families.
Take a tour. Visit the schools you’re interested in, either by making an appointment or attending an open house.
Apply. Typically, parents who have already enrolled have priority in registering their children for the following year, and new parents have to wait until priority registration is over to apply. Be sure to follow your preschool system’s specific enrollment guidelines, and note that many co-op preschools offer rolling enrollment and may have space throughout the school year.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in January 2015, and updated in August 2023.