Heather Borntraeger and Heather Walton
Homeschooling doesn’t have to be an isolated pursuit. Just because you’ve been called to educate your children at home doesn’t mean you have to do it all at home or all by yourself. While there are many ways to make the world your classroom, cooperatives (co-ops) are one of the most popular and for a good reason: co-ops appeal to our sense of community while giving us a change of scenery and pace.
What is a Co-op?
Homeschool co-ops are groups of families who connect regularly to create an educational experience for their children. Typically, each family has at least one adult who remains on-site and assists. Co-ops generally offer classes but may also provide nature study, field trips, social events, and more. Most meet weekly for six to eighteen weeks per session or semester.
Reasons to Consider Co-ops
Many families choose co-ops because they want a group learning experience for their children. Furthermore, some classes are difficult to teach one-on-one. For example, public speaking, journalism, drama, and robotics work better in a group setting. Parents may max out on their ability in the middle and high school years to teach math or science, or they may lack the background to teach a foreign language or music class. Because parents are on-site for classes, it’s easy to keep costs low.
Before You Start
If you already have a co-op in your community, you may want to see if it’s the right fit for your family by evaluating their activities, schedule, and location. Most importantly, are all subjects taught from a biblical worldview? If not, or if there are no co-ops nearby, maybe God is calling you to start a co-op. Prayer is important before beginning since God will direct you to lay a good foundation that will bless your community.
Ask the Lord to Provide the Vision
Co-ops vary in many ways, and if the Lord has called you to begin one, He can also provide the details; prayer should be emphasized at every juncture. Your co-op could be a small group of three families that meet in a home or a large operation with 100 students that meet at a church or anything in between. You may unite based on a teaching philosophy (Charlotte Mason, Classical Christian, etc.), age-range (elementary, middle school, etc.), or geographic area. You may have only one selection of classes per age group, or you may have several options per hour. You might meet in the morning and finish before lunch, or you may have classes all day with a lunch break. You may even meet in the evening. You might do multiple short sessions per year or a thirty-six week schedule. The options are endless, but it’s important to begin with something you feel comfortable with, that meets your family’s needs, and is sustainable.
Partner With a Church if Possible
Ideally, a church will partner with you in this vision. If you can identify a congregation to take on your co-op as a ministry, they will invest valued oversight, prayer, and resources. Your co-op may fall under their insurance umbrella and their nonprofit status. Most importantly, the pastor can shepherd and promote your ministry and provide wise counsel and conflict resolution. If this isn’t possible, you may want to partner with a local homeschool support organization (visit hslda.org/content/LandingPages/local-groups.asp), and you may need to rent space at a church, library, or community center. Be creative and check multiple options. You also may need to consult an accountant or lawyer regarding the benefits of forming a nonprofit ministry.
While co-ops can be a delightful part of a homeschool program, there are obstacles at times. Why? Because co-ops are made of people—imperfect people. Most people who start co-ops do it for their kids, and they have the best of intentions. However, they may not have a good foundation in leadership, or they may believe that because this is a ministry, it will be problem-free. Organizing and operating on biblical principles is the best predictor of success. It’s important to be prayerful and proactive and to understand that there may be obstacles.
Consistent, clear communication from the start will keep many conflicts from arising. Leaders should err on the side of overcommunication when it comes to schedules, expectations, and expenses but not about confidential matters, such as details of difficult leadership decisions. Parents don’t appreciate surprises to their calendars or their bank accounts. Good planning and clear communication are essential.
You also need an active leadership team. We recommend having one director who handles things like quick decisions, serious discipline issues, and other difficult situations. This person keeps the team focused on the vision. But that leader also needs an invested leadership team to help plan and oversee the co-op. For a small co-op, each participating parent may be on the team, whereas in a larger organization, three to eight leaders are ideal. You may need additional teachers, teaching assistants, hall monitors, and other volunteers. The key is to have participation from all present adults, so consider background checks, statements of faith, and other precautionary steps.
Matthew 18:15-17 addresses conflict in the church, yet many Christians fail to heed this biblical directive. Go over this text with your leaders and families in the beginning before co-op classes start, and let them know this is expected protocol. If you learn of a difficult situation, don’t shy away from it—prayerfully and honestly address those involved. Be loving and gracious but truthful.
Don’t Ever Forget
According to Deuteronomy 6, parents are primarily responsible for their children’s education. As a leader, don’t allow families to overly depend on your co-op. As a parent, don’t abdicate your role as your child’s primary teacher. Co-ops can be an excellent supplement to your homeschool when they are run and used properly.
Heather Borntraeger and her husband, Rick, live in Louisville, KY, where they serve the homeschooling community on the board of Home For His Glory. Having homeschooled their two adult children, Tyler and Haley, she now enjoys creative pursuits like consulting, singing, calligraphy, baking, and educating middle school math students in a private Christian school. The Bible is her favorite book, and she teaches other women to follow Christ in local ministry. Even though she is certified in Grades 1-8, she considers her time spent encouraging homeschooling families as one of her favorite pursuits.
Heather Walton and her husband, Terry, have eight children, ranging from age two to twenty-five, and one grandchild. They live in Louisville, KY, where Terry is a pastor. Heather homeschools her school-age children, and she leads Home For His Glory, Louisville’s Christian homeschool support group. She is also certified to teach elementary and special education and has taught and led in public and Christian schools. Heather has a passion for equipping families to disciple their children from a biblical worldview, especially within the homeschool context. Most importantly, she is a committed Christ-follower.