At the Chancellor Street Preschool Co-operative, the business manager is a parent. The person who refills the supplies and maintenance closet with soap and toilet paper is also a parent. Parents administrate admissions and provide diversity outreach. Parents set the tuition, design the schedule and make strategic decisions about the school’s future.
“Every job is filled by a parent of one of the 30 children who attends the school. We have only three paid staff members: the teachers,” says Heather Swindler, a teacher whose two children are alumni. “Every parent has two jobs. They serve as a teaching assistance in the classroom a day or two each month, and they do an administrative or practical job for the school.”
Since 1972, the school has operated as an incorporated co-operative. It has a board of directors headed by two parent co-chairs who are elected by fellow parents each spring. “The flavor of the school can really change from year to year depending on who the parents are. Each kid is here for just two or three years. Each group of parents bring their own expertise and knowledge with them,” says Swindler.
“Parents bring fresh ideas, while teachers have institutional memory,” Swindler adds. Indeed, the school has a very high retention rate for teachers. “We’ve seen which ideas have worked out and which haven’t in the past. Yet I’m continually impressed by the innovative ideas that parents bring.”
For membership in the co-op, current families are given priority and then applications are considered in the order they are received, starting in October. The school has a nondiscriminatory policy and provides a few small scholarships based on financial need.
The curriculum of the school is play-based to encourage self-directed learning. The school rents its location in the education wing of St. Paul’s Memorial Church, but is unaffiliated with the church.
Tuition rates at the school are comparatively low. “Quality education is often expensive,” says Swindler. “Here parents don’t just contribute money, like they do in a regular private school, they also contribute their time, labor and expertise.” Swindler says that mothers and fathers are equally present at the school.
National data on how preschools and daycares spend their funding suggests that at an average childcare center serving preschool-aged children, 13 percent of funding is spent on classroom materials and food, 16 percent on administration costs, 14 percent on the preschool space and 56 percent on salaries and benefits for employees. A co-op distributes funding differently—and can charge less tuition—because of the labor of parents.
The one downside of the co-operative model is that not every parent has the capacity to contribute time and labor to a school, according to Swindler. “Also, we are a half-day school, so we don’t meet the needs of families with two parents who work full-time and don’t have any flexibility.”
On the flip side, Swindler says that parents who have decided to leave the workforce or work less while their children are young often benefit a lot from the community of the school. “If you are someone who had a high-powered job and you find yourself listening to baby talk all day and telling your child where not to put their fingers, the school is an opportunity to use your job skills again and connect with adults around an intellectual challenge,” she says.
Both parents and children benefit from having parents in the classroom. “As a parent, I got to see how my kids were at school,” says Swindler. “How they played with other kids. How they dealt with new tasks and challenges. It was a gift to be able to know the at-school version of my kids.”