What’s unique about starting a preschool co-op? You might have already researched the process of launching an early childhood program - Jovial has an excellent guide -- how to start a preschool -- but what sets cooperatives apart from other preschool types is their collaborative nature and their strong feeling of community. Founding Board members, typically parents of future enrollees, shape everything from educational philosophy to hours and location, so gathering the right team is make-or-break for a new co-op’s success. Read below for some guidance on getting a cooperative preschool off the ground.
Step 1: Find Your People
The first thing I wondered, after moving to the Chicago area with plans to start a cooperative preschool, was where I might find like-minded parents and educators to join my founding board.
“Social media can make it easier to find your people,” said Dianne Rose, president of Parent Cooperative Preschools International (PCPI) and lead teacher at Hunters Woods Cooperative Preschool in Northern Virginia. “So can old-fashioned fliers in coffee shops.”
Rose also recommends tabling at farmers markets, expos, and community festivals, joining local parents’ groups, and advertising the need for board members at community centers (as long as their programs are not in direct competition.)
I met some of my board members organically, on the playground with my twin sons, and others through a coffee shop flier requesting community input, with a QR code linking to a Google Form survey. (Some sample questions: which type of program would meet your family’s needs - full or half day? What start and end time would work best?) Surveys are key, since co-ops are designed to reflect a specific community’s needs, and are easy to share online.
Hunters Woods Cooperative Preschool, the nature-based co-op where Rose teaches, was founded over 50 years ago by a small group of parents. “Surveys would have been done differently then, with a clipboard,” Rose said. “But it was the same idea: they got a group of people together who agreed on what they wanted, had a lot of long meetings, and had to make phone calls.”
Step 2: Incorporate
Once you’ve gathered your team of co-founders, the next step is to schedule a meeting to discuss whether to incorporate as a nonprofit or for-profit entity. Most cooperative preschools choose the nonprofit route, a status that reflects their “by the community, for the community” spirit.
But Dianne Rose of PCPI knows of a few for-profit parent cooperatives, just as she is familiar with co-ops that deviate from the tradition of offering half-day programs and provide a full day of childcare through lunch bunch and enrichment. “The flexibility is what makes a co-op so great,” said Rose. “You kind of just have to figure out a co-op based on its members.”
Each state has its own process for filing articles of incorporation. Illinois, where I registered my co-op, Oak Leaf, has a straightforward online form, and requires the names and contact information of at least three board members. Georgia, on the other hand, asks nonprofit founders to write and mail in their own articles, and mandates a minimum of one founding director. Your best bet is to search online for your state’s procedures.
Step 3: Join a Network or Partnership
After incorporating Oak Leaf, I joined the membership organization Parent Cooperative Preschool International (PCPI). In its publication, How To Start A Preschool Or Child-Care Cooperative, PCPI describes in detail how to organize a co-op and gather support, and provides access to sample forms crowdsourced from other parent cooperatives.
“People involved in cooperatives are known for helping when help is needed, and that extends to helping other people get their schools started,” Rose said. “Through membership in PCPI you can access a network of co-opers across North America.”
In addition to connecting new co-ops to established ones, PCPI holds annual conferences and offers grant funding, including seed money for new cooperative preschools.
One of the biggest financial and logistical hurdles for a startup preschool is purchasing insurance. Rose suggests turning to the PCPI council for recommendations. “It’s important to have an insurance company that understands co-ops,” she said. “Find the right one from the start.”
It also helps to join regional co-op networks. The California Council of Parent Participation Nursery Schools offers group insurance and support for everything from administration to marketing to taxes. In Oregon and Washington, 50 parent cooperatives are members of Parent Child Preschools Organization (PCPO), which provides a group insurance discount, training and guidance for board members, and educational events. Indiana, Virginia, Maryland, and Michigan have co-op groups as well; when I worked at a cooperative school in Ann Arbor, I was a member of a local network that met and emailed frequently to share ideas. Canada has co-op networks, in British Columbia and Ontario.
If you live in Washington state, you’re in luck: community colleges serve as hubs for co-ops, providing insurance, risk-management guidelines, and parent education.
In the 1960s, Washington began funding a network of community colleges with on-site cooperative preschools. These days, co-ops in the state incorporate as separate entities and affiliate with a local college.
College faculty support brand-new programs in filing articles of incorporation and establishing a parent board. “New co-ops can contact a local community college and they will help with the whole process,” said Betty Williams, who works closely with a co-op through her role as Parent Education Program Faculty Coordinator at North Seattle Community College. “Very few, if any, other states have the system we have.”
At North Seattle Community College, Parents have access to a college class that helps them in their role as volunteer assistant teachers, and can attend at a steep discount. “People pay $16 per credit rather than over $100,” Williams said.
Williams, who also teaches four college classes, provides leadership training and assistance to parent board members. She leads parent education workshops, visits the classroom weekly, and shares resources about child development and positive discipline. “We build a community of support,” Williams said. It’s a model other states ought to replicate. In the meantime, if you’re located out of state, try contacting a local community college, and exploring whether a partnership is possible.
Step 4: Think Ahead to Enrollment
There are many steps to take before enrolling families: securing classroom space, applying for a daycare license, and marketing the program, to name a few. But it helps to think ahead to how you will process enrollment applications and tuition payments once all your ducks are in a row.
Early on in my journey towards founding Oak Leaf, I asked the treasurer of the co-op I’d worked at in Michigan what software they used to manage enrollment and billing. She pointed me to Jovial, the only preschool management software designed specifically for co-ops. Months away from my anticipated opening date, I reached out to Jovial and got the ball rolling on setting up an account; this turned out to come in handy when I unexpectedly postponed opening the preschool and launched a family enrichment program.
Jovial not only processes enrollment forms and accepts e-payments for tuition, but allows schools to organize parent volunteer roles and work times digitally. The cloud-based software provides a library of forms, including a family contract and parent volunteer job preference form. And the best part? In the spirit of supporting nonprofit, community-oriented preschools, the software is free.
Liana is the founder and president of Oak Leaf Cooperative School, a nature-based preschool launching soon in the Chicago area. She is also a blogger, content writer for Jovial, and proud mom of twin toddlers.