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Building a Montessori Homeschooling Co-op

By Kathy von Duyke
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #53, 2003.

Suggestions for how to start and maintain a Montessori co-op.

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Kathy von Duyke

Two of the daunting things about trying to develop a Montessori program in the home are the amount Of space required, and the expense of the equipment.

Enter the Montessori Homeschooling Community Co-op!

There is a call to community, especially among Christians, that we all hear and desire, something that maintains trust and intimacy within a larger group. And that call is being answered as small groups of parents are joining together to create Montessori homeschooling communities. Each family pitches in finances and time to purchase and make materials, and picks a site such as a local church to meet in.

How Our Co-op Works

Using mine as an example, three moms and 16 children meet four days a week in two large rooms in my basement until lunch each day. Each mom has a key and can come and go whenever she needs to set up her part of the classroom.

Each of us "own" a part of the basement to keep organized and prepared. We each invest time and/or money in the materials that we most want to use. Each of us took our favorite areas as much as possible to teach and prepare. So one mom has the 3-6 year-old room as a whole, but she only prepares the sensorial, language arts, geography, and history areas. The other mom prepares the extensive practical life activities and math. I prepare the 2nd-8th grade room and teach most subjects to that age. However one mom teaches the 3rd-8th grade history, and the other mom teaches grades K-3 history. The math mom blurs somewhat into my room, preparing jobs and inventing great art activities for us.

I often take a break from the older kids' side and spend some time in the preschool side so I can enjoy my own little ones, and allow the other moms a break to either teach a small group of kids, or tutor their own children in the older kids' side to stay in touch there.

We are all loving this system, especially the fact that most of the students finish all their work by lunch, which we enjoy together, then everyone can complete their day with homeschooling off of their minds!

We gave ourselves some time to "experiment" so we wouldn't get frustrated with ourselves if things didn't go well on the first try, and we didn't try to build the whole curriculum at once. We started with the basics of the practical life areas, reading and math, and built in history, science, and writing as we got our feet wet.

Advantages of a Montessori Co-op

I see several advantages to this approach over a normal Montessori classroom.

First, we moms get to spend lots of quality time highly involved with our children.

Second, the cost is greatly reduced over private school tuition. I estimated the quality of our program to he comparable to a $10,000/year school per student. For a fraction of that each year we can send all of our children and still be able to invest in quality materials, books, and computer equipment.

Third, my focus is better with the children since I'm not trying to manage all the little ones and the house as well while schooling. While those of us who have babies keep our babies mostly with us, our toddlers and preschoolers are well occupied.

Fourth, we get to keep our babies with us! How many jobs offer moms that natural reality?

Fifth, there is a cross-over between the classrooms rare in most school settings. Often our early elementary students will go to the younger room to use the practical life activities as a mental break between subjects. When I teach the middle elementary science, my junior high students often listen in and mentally review concepts before I tackle the same subject with them at a higher level. The little children participate in jingle time and history songs and observe the studiousness of the older children.

Finally, most Montessori schools have parent training nights where parents are introduced to the Montessori method and taught how to incorporate it into their home routines, While this is wonderful, our moms are studying all the books and attending the national conference and observing at schools! We are intensely interested in becoming better teachers ourselves. I believe this training can be well used as our own children grow, should we decide to move to a bigger facility and keep the school open in order to incorporate more students and families as a private school.

Other Approaches to Group Homeschooling with Montessori

I could envision several other approaches to this idea. One possibility would be for a group of parents to build a co-op school that meets in a house or home. Another possibility would be to start a two- or three-day-per-week school with a board, and a mix of certified teachers and parent teachers. A final possibility would be for an established Montessori school to open up one-, two-, or three-day slots for homeschoolers or to create a homeschool classroom with a rotation of students.

While public schools often are driven by available resources to become bigger, bigger isn't always better, especially when the bonds of parent and children are concerned. The free market system gives rise to the possibility of smaller private schools that can be a community not of exclusiveness, but intimacy. The homeschooling market has opened up the idea of part-time schools. This is especially attractive in terms of homeschoolers who need support. ("Why, shucks, back in the early days when homeschooling was beginning I had to stand in snow and teach my children in my bare feet!") And this offers many moms a chance to work part-time and still be able to manage home and children. Some teachers are grabbing onto the idea of working from home as they service the homeschooling community and liking the idea of being professionals with more say in their work.

What to Do with Newcomers

In my early co-op days we had a wonderful small, supportive co-op of homeschoolers, This necessarily attracted newcomers. As we tried to accommodate new people, we lost ground in terms of the level of growth we'd achieved as a group, and we lost intimacy. Later when the group reformed, we decided that unless we really felt we had a place open and the willingness to work with a new family, we should help the new families who approached us find each other, so they too could enjoy the excitement of growth and the nurture of a small community.

So my suggestion here is not built on the idea of exclusiveness, nor against the idea of building a larger school, but just recommendation to keep things small until you really are ready for growth. It is rarely wise to neglect the needs of the existing group in the process of trying to meet the needs of others, who, given a few suggestions about how you got where you are, would go and very happily build their own co-op.

What We Need from the Montessori Community

The Montessori community needs to respond to this growing consumer need by providing more training conferences where parent participants can earn points towards a lay certification. They need to write articles that show how homeschooling fits in with Maria Montessori's ideas. And I believe they need to see how this strategy will bring the Montessori method to higher grade levels in this country at a lower price per family and will work to encourage future charter schools. Montessori companies need to develop materials that include parent guides/teaching manuals for each course, and provide kits of books and materials to go with each manual. They also need to consider how they might develop software and training videos that could complement a lay teacher's work. Montessori schools need to consider developing satellite programs, and Montessori teachers might consider advertising to teach on a part time basis at a small co-op school.

Like the textbook companies years ago, who wouldn't sell materials to parents lest we "cheat" when schooling our children, the Montessori community is still doubtful that parents are able to learn and incorporate their methods. There has always been sort of a mysteriousness about its teachers, and I can tell you it has not been easy to find upper elementary materials and a cohesive program! (Conferences are an excellent source, but also check out the American Montessori Society web page, www.amshq.org) I believe that if homeschoolers keep showing up at their doorstep, a shift will happen. Please call your favorite Montessori vendor and let them know that as a homeschooler, you are deeply interested in their products!

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