When I was a young mom with little ones who needed to eat round the clock and nap on regular schedules, I did stay at home more. And when I first began to homeschool my older kids but still had little ones who made it difficult to be out for long periods of time, I found much of my support and encouragement from other homeschoolers online. Blogs and forums and social media groups became a great source of information and of reassurance that I could do this homeschooling thing. I was able to talk to and learn from people who had been doing this much longer than myself, and it was great.
But I've also benefitted greatly from the connections I've made with other homeschool moms in real life. And, when we've been able to make it work with ages of kids and our general schedules, I've enjoyed being a part of local homeschool co-ops and social groups. Although co-ops can be great, there have been some experiences that were a little less helpful. And I've learned over the years to consider some things before committing to a homeschool co-op.
What is a homeschool co-op?A homeschool co-op usually involves a group of homeschoolers that meet on a regular schedule so that kids can take academic or elective classes together with other homeschoolers. Sometimes parents are the teachers, and sometimes a co-op will hire out for trained teachers or tutors who have a special knowledge of a particular subject. Some co-ops have a more social objective, so the classes won't be that strenuous and won't usually usually require outside homework or preparation. And some co-ops are more academic with classes that will count towards required classes even for older students. These co-ops typically require work that the student does outside of class as well as in class.
Co-ops meet regularly, but how often they meet can vary. More social co-ops might meet less often, but academic co-ops might meet weekly or even multiple times each week. If you are new to an area and looking for a co-op, you can probably google "homeschool co-ops in..." to get a good start. HSLDA also offers a page with homeschool support groups in US states and territories.
Our co-op experience...Our experience with co-ops have included both social co-ops and academic co-ops. We have participated in a Fun Friday co-op which offered fun classes, and all of the moms took turns teaching or helping in classes. This co-op met every other week, and it was a half-day co-op with four blocks of classes.
We've been a part of a small group co-op with only two other families where the purpose was very specifically to study science and do experiments together. In that co-op, we met every other week, and the other moms and I all took turns hosting the group in our homes. When it was our turn to host, it was also our turn to teach.
We've been a part of another primarily social group, although the classes offered were a little more varied. This co-op met every week but only for an hour or so, and the kids only chose one class to take at a time. Moms volunteered to teach, but it wasn't required.
Right now my oldest is in an academic co-op for high school students. The classes offered are rigorous enough to be counted as high school credit. The teachers are primarily moms, but they are paid to offer the class and teach classes that they have some experience/ interest in.
Why should you join a homeschool co-op?
- If you are new to homeschooling or new to an area, a co-op can really help you to make connections and form long-lasting friendships.
- My children have always been homeschooled and never known anything else. But I have friends who had their kids in "regular school" before homeschooling, and they've enjoyed co-ops because it gives kids the opportunity to do some of the fun parts of school- parties, pajama day, class pictures.
- If you need some structure and accountability, an academic co-op can provide it. When you have a group that's helping guide your lesson planning and school work, you can sometimes maintain focus and routine but still have the flexibility of homeschooling.
- Academic co-ops are also great for finding a mom or other teacher/tutor that can teach a subject you don't like or that you struggle with. I'm not a great science person. But I've been able to find some good science classes through co-ops. I'm especially not a fan of dissecting, but my kids have been able to do it through co-op classes.
- Some elective subjects are just more fun with a group. I could teach my kids some cooking skills, and we could make a variety of dishes. But it wouldn't be nearly as much fun as they had when they did a cooking around the world class in co-op.
Why shouldn't you join a homeschool co-op?
- One of the biggest thing that has hindered us in our first co-op experience was simply our season of life. With older kids who were a little out of the intended age range and a young one who still needed to be close to me, it just wasn't a good fit. If the ages of your kids aren't right for the co-op, you may not have a good experience.
- It would be nice to think that any co-op group would only have involved, committed and respectful people; but no matter where you go, you can find people who just won't do what they're supposed to. If you have a volunteer run co-op and people won't volunteer, you won't have a good experience. If there are a handful of people who are always late or always absent or always unprepared, the co-op won't run well. You'll want to find like-minded people to make a co-op experience a good one, and you'll want to make sure you can commit and be faithful so that you're not the one that causes the co-op to struggle.
- Another issue that can make your co-op experience a negative one is not having an understanding of the purpose of the co-op. I've known moms who wanted to join our co-op that was mainly social, but when they joined, they weren't happy because the co-op was not doing more in the way of structured academics. Likewise, if you joined a structured, focused co-op like the high school one my daughter is attending, you would need to understand that there is real work required and grades given. It's not just a place to hang out and have fun. Not knowing and understanding the co-op's purpose can result in a bad experience for everyone involved.