Homeschool co-ops work well as part of the educational landscape of some families. However, you may not be able to find an existing co-op that is near enough your home to be practical, or it may not meet the academic, creative, or social goals you have for a co-op. The other problem may be that there is a flourishing co-op nearby, but the co-op is full and has a waiting list.
You can organize a new homeschool co-op yourself.
Here are a few questions to help you organize your homeschool co-op
1. What is the purpose of your proposed co-op?
Here, it's best to consider the needs of your own children and create a co-op that addresses those needs. Do your kids primarily need more social time and more children to play with? Are you looking for classroom-type instruction in traditional academics? Are you seeking enrichment for the kids, such as hands-on projects, artwork, or service work?
Make sure that what you're looking for in a co-op becomes and remains central to the co-op you're creating, or you'll burn out on organizing something that meets other people's needs -- but not your own!
Ask yourself, realistically, are there enough other homeschooling families in your region who will share this purpose in a co-op? Of course, a co-op can meet multiple needs at once. Perhaps your main goal is to create a social network for your children, but another parent has children who want to participate in drama activities. You may be able to marry these goals plus several others, as long as there are plenty of social opportunities -- which was your main goal for the co-op.
2. What will be the level of parent involvement?
A basic difference in co-ops is whether parents are expected to be on hand throughout each co-op meeting time, on hand to volunteer or give their own children any needed attention, or whether the co-op will pay teachers with parents encouraged to drop their children off and pay teacher fees.
Each of these types of co-ops is popular and can work well. However, misunderstandings can arise if expectations are not communicated clearly. You don't want some parents doing all the teaching and volunteering and becoming resentful of parents who don't understand and commit to that aspect of your co-op.
3. What will the decision-making process be?
Many small co-ops operate as benign dictatorships with a large dose of consensus decision-making among all the parents. Typically a leader or couple of co-leaders create the vision, invite prospective members, and make logistical decisions, such as place and time. Frequently, the leaders have a couple of specific ideas for offerings -- you may envision a big "recess" or have the skills to lead a children's choir or teach American Sign Language. Other offerings may be developed based on the talents of participating parents, which you can begin to determine at parent meetings or in emails.
If you are planning a larger or more formal co-op, you may want to gather a nucleus of parents to form a voting board of directors to make decisions. Keep in mind that a board of directors may initially seem to embrace your vision, but sometimes these things take on a life of their own. Voting on an initial mission statement can help keep a board-directed co-op on track.
4. What are the logistics?
Your co-op will need a place to meet, a frequency of meeting (twice weekly, weekly, monthly?) and a calendar. You need to choose activities and classes. Your activities or classes will need leaders or teachers. You will need to determine your half-day or full-day schedule. If you are working without a board, you'll probably float a proposed schedule to your initial families. If you are working with a board of directors, you'll propose these logistics to them for a vote.
You'll also need to decide what fees to charge for teachers or meeting space.
Then you, or those working with you, will have to make the phone calls and do the emailing to set everything up.
5. What families will you serve, and how many?
Will the co-op serve families with a specific homeschooling interest? There are co-ops that lean toward Waldorf-inspired homeschooling, Classical homeschooling, eclectic unschooling, or other approaches to home education. There are also general co-ops, with homeschoolers of different styles coming together for co-op day.
Decide on a goal for the number of participants, both by family and by individual child. Decide whether your co-op will be just for certain ages, stages, or grades of kids, or whether you will offer multiple activities for different age groups. Will families with babies or toddlers be welcome? Will there be child care so parents with young children can teach or otherwise help with other aspects of co-op? Or will each parent watch her own early years children, volunteering in ways that work with a younger family? Remember that all this has to fit in your meeting space!
6. How will you publicize your co-op?
Post messages about your co-op on homeschool email lists and Facebook groups. If you belong to a larger homeschool group, put a notice in the newsletter or on the website.
You may wish to make your co-op "by invitation only." This has its good and bad points. On the one hand, you can more easily choose families you think will be a good fit. For example, cooperative parents and children work best in a co-op.
On the other hand, there may be hurt feelings in the homeschool community when some families aren't invited. The reality is, volunteer homeschool co-ops aren't equipped to handle unlimited numbers of kids with highly varying expectations from different parents -- so keeping a co-op small and focused will mean not all families are able to participate in all co-ops.
If your co-op fills to the brim, you can create a waiting list. Some co-op leaders have even facilitated a meeting among those on the waiting list so they could start their own co-op.
A final caveat about invitation-only co-ops -- while these have a strong suit of selecting for cooperation and good fit, such a co-op can unintentionally circle in on itself, without new members to provide new ideas, diverse backgrounds important for children's social learning, and new volunteer efforts. If you use an invitation model for your co-op, examine the effects of your policy frequently so you can ensure the ongoing vitality of the co-op.
7. How will you communicate with co-op members?
Set up an email list, Facebook group, Google chat/hangout, or other e-message system for communicating with the parents in your co-op.
You may also have regular parent and/or board meetings.
Many co-ops have spring and summer planning meetings to set things up for the coming year.
8. Is it really such a big deal to organize a co-op?
It doesn't have to be. There are some large co-ops that function practically like part-time schools, and there are parents who want to create and have their children benefit from such a co-op while still spending much of their time in family-based homeschooling. You may be one of those people.
However, you can also create a co-op with three or four families -- or ten or twelve.
You can create a co-op that meets once a month, or only for half-days.
You can create a co-op with the families you already know, who meet for park day where you live.
Or you can reach out to meet new families who might share a particular interest in nature, robotics, the arts, science, or history, and who'd like to get together so their kids can learn in a cooperative community.
Those of us who have organized co-ops previously have some organizational tips, but there's no substitute for simply getting started.
One of the beauties of the flat, non-bureaucratic nature of homeschooling is, you can just turn to a friend and say, "Let's start a co-op." And then do it.