How to Start Homeschool Co-op Classes
Homeschool co-op classes are popping up everywhere. When children are younger, some homeschool families organize informal co-ops by just getting together periodically for a day at a park for fellowship. Others become a little more formal and get together regularly to swap off teaching certain subjects. When children are older many homeschool moms and dads realize they do not want to teach junior high or especially high school subjects such as Chemistry or Writing or Algebra. The homeschool co-op can serve as a viable alternative to public or private school. But how do you organize a homeschool co-op?
- Open or Closed Co-op
- Paid or Free Co-op
- Collection and Teacher Payments
- Statement of Faith
- Legal Entities and Insurance
- Teacher Responsibilities
- Teaching Equipment
Forming and running a homeschool co-op can be overwhelming, but does not have to if you know what needs to be done. Take things one step at a time, and share the work. Certain decisions need to be made early. The larger the co-op, the more the items in the list on the left will apply.
Someone with vision has to take the ball and run to get things going. Usually that someone and a couple of others end up being the board. An unofficial or official board is necessary, because certain responsibilities must be handled. The buck has to stop somewhere. It works better however, if more than one person carries the load. The goal is to set things up where administrative duties are minimal, yet things run smoothly. The board is there to lead and delegate, not do all the work. Get help from participants if more families are involved, but have a limited number in charge (3 people is an ideal number for a board). Too many chiefs can cause confusion and fights.
Open or Closed Co-op
The size of the co-op will be determined by where you live and if your co-op is closed, with a limited number of participating families, or open to others who hear about it and want to join. Because of the limited size, closed co-ops take less work and much of the following may not apply. Open co-ops tend to grow large, yet locations have limited space, so some limits have to be made. Teachers can only handle so many students per class. Parents must not be allowed to use the co-op as a paid or free babysitting service. The co-op is to help and support home education, but not replace it. Both closed and open co-ops have pros and cons; both work well.
Paid or Free Co-op
Very few things in life are free. Someone has to pay for heating and air conditioning, wear and tear on the building, school supplies, website, teaching equipment and other miscellaneous items. Expenses need to be shared by all. The idea is to keep expenses at a minimum and not make 1 or 2 people cover the cost for everyone. Is there a fee for classes? Even with parents volunteering to teach, expenses will still need to be paid. Is there a supply fee or do the parents buy the student supplies on their own using a supply list? If charging a predetermined fee to cover expenses, have parents pay when they sign up for classes.
Collection and Teacher Payments
Co-ops with paid teachers tend to be organized in one of two ways. The co-op will either collect from parents, or the teachers will collect from parents. Either way, at registration, collect the money for supplies and the first 4 - 8 weeks of classes. The payment schedule should be set up for parents to prepay or some will drop and leave without paying, which hurts teachers and other families who would have benefited from being in the class. An alternative is to pay an entire semester or year in 1 or 2 payments, which saves time in bookkeeping and collections. Parents mean to pay, but forget or think they have paid. The teachers or co-op should keep good books: record check number, date on check, amount and who paid. A lot of arguments and hurt feelings are avoided if good records are kept.
Some co-ops have parents pay the co-op, and then the co-op pays the teachers. If teachers are paid, but are last on the totem pole and are not paid much, distribute the grading work load, so teachers teach and are not overloaded with grading. Good teaching requires hours of preparation. It’s too much to ask a teacher to work for a pittance, and then expect hours of grading for free. Such mistreatment is wrong, and burnout will rapidly result.
If teachers are paid directly by the parents, they should handle their own records and pay a fee to the co-op per number of students for the room they use, which should be enough to cover building costs, monitors, insurance and other expenses.
Some families will be experiencing hardship, such as loss of jobs, and ask for a scholarship. Our experience is that it is better to do a work swap with the parents and students, with chores by the mom or the student done to help the teacher, than to scholarship the child. Some take scholarships for granted, and don’t apply themselves in the class. At any rate, work swap parents at a minimum should pay out of pocket the cost of the facility.
Statement of Faith
Often a Statement of Faith will be needed. Some churches will want to know where your co-op stands on faith, before they will allow you to use their facilities. At a minimum, the leadership and teachers should sign their agreement with the statement. Some co-ops use the classes as an opportunity for ministry or outreach, so they do not require students and parents to sign the statement, but just acknowledge that they have read it. Others would rather everyone be in 100% agreement. In that case, students and parents should read and acknowledge the beliefs, and everybody signs in agreement. Look at other co-ops online, look at church doctrines, look at creeds and talk to your pastor to help you determine what you want on your co-op’s statement.
Legal Entities and Insurance
If you are forming a small co-op, then a legal entity and insurance may not be necessary. Check with a local attorney to ensure you conform to the laws of your state. Legal paperwork may need to be handled for a larger co-op. Some type of entity needs to be set up if you want a checking account in the name of the co-op. Some co-ops just file a “Doing Business As” (DBA) with the local government. More than 1 person needs be able to sign on the checking account. Formal entities (corporations, Limited Liability Companies, etc) may limit liability, but can involve hours of work and serious money to set up and properly operate. Tax returns may also be needed. Consult your CPA or tax advisor. Do you need tax free status? Unless you expect tax deductible donations to your co-op, you probably do not need to file with the IRS for 501(c)(3) status for your corporation. Again, consult your CPA or tax advisor.
A few locations will cover your co-op with their insurance, but most co-ops need to buy their own medical and liability insurance. Can you be under a church’s umbrella or work through a homeschool support group? Check with your insurance agent to make sure you are protected against loss.
Will you meet 1 day a week? 2 days a week? Does every class meet 2 days per week or does each class meet 1 day but 2 days are used so the schedule offers a larger variety of classes? Schedule to maximize the use of your facility. How much time is needed to teach each subject? Some take longer to teach. Some, such as chemistry, take longer to set up. Some, such as choir or band, are noisy; some, such as art, take longer to clean up. Allow time in the schedule between classes for 1 teacher to clean up after class, while giving the next teacher some time to set up for class. A couple of people need to be in charge of arranging classes into a schedule that will work best for everyone.
When just a few families are forming a closed co-op, a website will not be needed, and an email loop or Yahoo group can easily handle communication between members. For large open co-ops, websites are a convenient way to communicate with parents. Peruse co-op websites for ideas on what information should be included. The task of creating and maintaining the website could count for 1 person’s job in the co-op.
Location is a key factor. How many families / students are participating will determine the size needed. How many rooms will you need? Do you need a place for students to wait for class? Will students be there long enough to need lunch? Is there a place they could eat their lunch? What rooms are available for your use? What are the sizes of the rooms? How many students will each room hold? What furniture is available for use? Will the furniture fit the students? Is there any storage available for teacher equipment or ongoing student projects? Do you need a place for moms with small children to wait?
Churches, community centers, homes, strip centers, libraries and homeschool stores are possible locations. The first place to ask to use their facilities is your church. Churches seem to be more open to co-ops using the church campus if leaders or members from the co-op are members of the church. Most locations will have 1 to 3 available rooms. It is a challenge to find buildings with 4 - 7+ rooms available for class use. Typically a church will charge a fee that barely covers their expenses for heating and cooling the building. If churches do not see the co-op as a ministry, they will probably charge more. Whether or not they charge a building use fee, compensate them somehow to say thank you. Realize you will cause wear and tear on the building no matter how careful you are. Treat them right and you probably can come back the next year. You might have a work day and require participants to help repair and fix up the building or do landscaping work or fix some lunches for the church staff. Some places would rather have professionals work on their building, so have a fund raiser and pay the building owners the proceeds as a thank you gift. At any rate, maintain a great relationship with the contact person from the church, and ask them to contact you immediately when there are problems. Show them your appreciation often for ministering to home education families.
Sometimes tables, chairs, and even desks may come with a location and are available for use. But, does the furniture fit the students and the needs for the subjects being taught? The co-op should be responsible for setting up the rooms and taking them back down each day, whether using co-op furniture or the location’s furniture. With 1 or 2 parent volunteers in charge, have students set up and take down the rooms at the beginning and ending of the day. Ask for a room diagram so the furniture can be put back in place for church use at the next service. Maybe even contact the Sunday School teacher to make sure the room is set up the way they want it. Have students take out the trash and make sure the rooms are left clean every day. The teachers should be responsible enough to keep their rooms decent. The last teacher should not have to clean up after everyone else, and the first teacher should not have to haul furniture before she or he can teach.
Are teachers required to have an official teaching certificate by you or your state? It might be required by your state. Are teachers paid or do they volunteer? Will parents just drop their kids off, or will they have jobs to do to help at the co-op? Who will assist? Who will grade? Who will monitor students coming and going or just waiting for class to begin? Who will make copies? Who will keep the books? “Mandatory volunteers” is an oxymoron and sounds silly, but 1 or 2 people do not need to work themselves to death, because they will burn out and quit. Parents do not need to see the co-op as a babysitting service. Distribute the work load evenly, especially if people are not compensated. Avoid teacher and administration burn out.
Co-ops are structured in different ways. Some co-ops are structured where the teacher is not paid, but everyone helps with the work load. If the teacher is not paid then certain jobs and expenses should be shared to keep from overloading one or two people with work and costs.
- Students (parents) need to purchase their personal supplies.
- 1 teacher could teach each lesson or the job could be shared with different teachers teaching different sections or alternate lessons.
- Other parents could grade (helps to grade during class time). Big help!
- The co-op needs to purchase an overhead projector, blank transparencies and other costly equipment if possible.
- One mom’s job could be to make the transparencies and other copies which teachers need to teach their classes.
Other co-ops are structured where the teacher is paid by the parents of the students either directly or through the co-op. Even when paid, the teacher will still need to determine if any assistance is needed from others. Some classes require a heavy grading load which does not need to all fall on one person unless they are paid quite well. Students still need to purchase their own worksheets and supplies. A major objective is to keep from burning out quality teachers.
Teachers need to plan ahead and be well prepared. Each teacher should be able to show their curriculum syllabus before the year begins. They should have at least a rough idea of what they will teach in each lesson. When teachers wing it, they run the risk of getting off track and then blaming the students. It gets messy. The teacher is required to clearly communicate what is required of the students each week. They should utilize a system to have easy contact with parents. This is a homeschool co-op, so the parents are still responsible for helping their child have the required work ready for each lesson. The teacher can influence what goes on at home, but cannot determine what happens at home.
Do the teachers provide their own equipment and supplies? What will they need to have on hand to teach? Do they need white boards, markers, overhead projectors, art supplies, musical instruments, microscopes…? Who will supply what? Does the location have anything that could be used? Used office equipment can be affordable. Try Craig’s List or an online garage sale for possible affordable equipment.
Discipline tends to be an occasional challenge. Should the teacher just contact the parents by email or phone? Should the teacher have parent conferences or just casually talk with the parents when they see them? When there is the need for parent conferences for discipline reasons, it is best to have a board member present. If it is just a teacher and the parents, this can cause problems with “he said, she said” misunderstandings. In case of students fighting on campus, what do teachers or monitors do? Does the teacher have the right to throw a student out of class or off campus? Suspend? Expel? Who decides? Does the parent get a refund if the student is expelled? How bad of behavior determines if the student is expelled? Be aware that in an open co-op, an occasional parent with a student who has been expelled from public or private schools will decide to “homeschool” their student, and expect your co-op to handle all the education, as if it were a private school. Hopefully you will never have to deal with severe problems. If there are predetermined ground rules or guidelines already written, read and signed by teachers, parents and students, then it saves some headaches down the road.
Determine what acceptable and what unacceptable behavior is. Do you want or need a dress code? What about laptops, cell phones and all the other technical things which are sometimes needed and many times a distraction? What about the risk of expensive items being lost or were they stolen?
Be Flexible but Firm
Realize you will have challenges and you will need to adjust things to fit your situation. Set standards and put policy in place that will be easy to follow. Be flexible, but be careful about being too flexible. Look at co-op websites for other ideas.