A homeschool co-operative is a group of families that meet together regularly to give and receive support through organizing and offering educational classes, homeschool enrichment opportunities, field trips and other social activities.
If you live in an urban area, you may find a variety of co-ops, many with different focuses and themes, where you can meet other homeschoolers and find support for your homeschool journey.
If there aren't any groups near you, or the current co-ops constantly fill up and have waiting lists, perhaps you should consider starting your own homeschool co-operative.
Starting a homeschool co-operative takes some work, but the result is so rewarding - for you and for your future co-op families.
Below I've highlighted some issues to think through, as well as some areas where you will need to focus your attention as you begin your co-op adventure. By no means is this an exhaustive list, but it will give you a good idea of the different elements of a co-op and some pre-planning steps.
You will want to form a leadership team, board, or committee. The team can consist of other homeschooling parents who are interested in starting a co-op, and/or a church leadership team like a pastor, elders/deacons, outreach or children's ministry directors, etc.
A homeschool co-operative can meet in a variety of places depending on your focus and the size of your group, etc. Possible places to meet: Local churches, community centers, parks, libraries, a large home, a farm, or other available buildings in your community, etc.
You will also need to decide what age/grades your co-op will reach. Remember: Many homeschooling families have both high schoolers and preschoolers, so if you offer high school classes, you will want to provide an option for preschoolers and babies, since you will be relying heavily on parental involvement.
Some groups only want to offer enrichment classes, while others include core classes in their schedule. When starting out, consider offering classes that are more difficult to teach in a home setting, like gym, art, music, and certain science classes, then build from there.
Come up with a creative name to identify your homeschool group. If you don't already have a name in mind, consider opening up the naming process to the rest of the families in the group; you are sure to find some creative individuals.
You will need to figure out which day/s of the week your co-op will meet. Most co-ops meet once a week, but some meet once a month, or multiple times a week.
For example: If art classes are available for homeschoolers in your area on a Tuesday, choose another day to meet, so families can attend the art classes and your co-op.
You will need to register your name, get a tax id number and set up a bank account. If you have reservations or are low on funds initially, you can start your group with a DBA; once your group becomes established, you can look into becoming a full-fledged 501c3. The co-op I started became a ministry of the church I attended and our group fell under the church's 501c3 umbrella.
If you want to include homeschooling families from all around
your area, you will want to start spreading the word. You don't have to have
everything figured out to start spreading the news, so don't panic. Let people
know that a new co-op is forming, a little bit about it, and include your contact information so you
can start building your list.
You may want to follow-up with information on current needs that you have - teaching needs, specific classes you are looking for, or jobs or roles that are currently open. You will also want to include more info about your group's vision, so potential families can decide if they want to join.
You or someone on your leadership team will have to create a co-op calendar to help plan out your meeting dates and sessions for the entire year. As you put the dates down, you will need to include major holidays and plan for breaks, etc.
Questions to ask: Will your classes last the entire year, or will you offer multiple sessions?
A tip from my experience: If you offer high school classes, allow for at least 26 weeks for 1 credit classes. You can offer two session that are 13 weeks long and have a break during the Christmas/New Year holidays.
As your team meets together, you will want to find out what classes the other parents are willing to teach and begin making a list of classes. You may notice that there are multiple classes for one age group/grade, but none for another. Parents will need to be somewhat flexible when it comes to teaching, but I have found that most are willing to move up or down a grade or age group when the need arises.
You will need to create a class schedule for each session or the year. Arranging classes can be time-consuming the first few times you do this, but it will become easier with practice. The key is to make sure you have options for each age group/grade each hour you meet.
Scheduling can get tricky when you have parents teaching multiple classes, or certain restrictions you need to work around. For a growing co-op, a study hall or open gym time is helpful for students who don't want to take a class or when classes fill up, etc.
Start creating general rules or guidelines for your group.
Some of these rules may come from the building "landlord" or church
staff, etc. For example: One of our rules for the kids was no bouncing balls in
the hallway because the church office was open when our co-op met and it was
disruptive to those who were working. Another guideline was that families needed find their own replacements to fulfill their co-op job if they were going to be absent.
At the beginning of every session, we would have a parent's meeting where I would go over all the guidelines with both new and returning families; parents and children alike would sign their copy and hand it in, so everyone knew what was expected of them.
You must decide how your co-op is going to operate. Most likely you will have to pay something for building use, and supplies to run the co-op. Some things to consider: Are you going to pay your teachers? Or, are your instructors going to be parents who attend the co-op, or both? What about liability insurance, if someone gets hurt while attending co-op classes?
Our co-op was set-up where each family volunteered their time. If our families wanted a certain class offered but there wasn't anyone with the expertise or confidence to teach the subject matter, then we would hire someone from outside the homeschool co-operative to teach the class. We utilized retired or former teachers and other professionals for a number of classes over the years, however, many of our parents were more than qualified to teach almost any K-12 class or topic because of former education, work experience or personal interest.
We would create a list of jobs that needed to be done each week and families would sign up to oversee and/or complete the task. Some responsibilities were more involved - like overseeing clean-up each week. The person responsible did not have to clean every week, but would create a cleaning schedule, send out reminder emails, and make sure the jobs were done by the volunteer families.
As a homechool co-operative leader or organizer, your main job will be to oversee the entire group. If your group is very small, you will have less work to do, especially if you divide the responsibilities up among those on your leadership team. When I first started our homeschool co-operative, I taught a class or two every session. As our group grew, I could no longer teach and lead the group well, so I had to give up teaching to focus solely on leadership/administration duties.
As the leader, you will cast the vision for the group, make sure all the different areas are being taken care of and completed as planned. Some groups have a "board" or church ministry team that leaders need to be accountable to - as the co-op leader, you may need to fulfill that responsibility, or you may be able to delegate it to another trusted, like-minded individual or co-op liaison depending on how your group is set-up.
You will most likely have to deal with any discipline issues that go beyond the classroom, as well as family participation problems, etc.
As far as your parent volunteers, it's important that each person serve in the area where they are most gifted and/or passionate. When a new family entered our homeschool co-operative, we gave them a questionnaire to fill out to help us get to know them, how we can best meet their needs as they homeschool, and to find out where they would best fit within our co-op.
If you are thinking "I'm not sure if I could start a homeschool co-operative", take comfort in knowing that I had no special training or knowledge of running a "school". I didn't even know that much about homeschooling as I had only been homeschooling for a little over a year.
In 1999, I started a homeschool co-operative in the Metro Detroit area with just $100. For 13 years, our co-op met every Friday and grew to over 125 families; we had the privilege of coming alongside homeschooling families and supporting them in their home education journey by offering fun, hands-on, core and enrichment classes for grades PreK-12. In 2012, God led me and my family in a different direction, so I no longer am involved in a co-op. However, I enjoyed leading our group; it was a very rewarding experience and turned out to be the best $100 investment I ever made!
If I can successfully start and run a homeschool co-operative, I know you can too!