Today, I'm especially lucky to have Tracey Birch from Inside the Mommyvan explaining what co-ops mean to home schoolers...and what they don't. Thank you, Tracey!
If you spend much time around homeschoolers, you'll probably hear them talk about their "co-op" days. I was recently asked for an explanation of these mysterious organizations by someone who'd heard they they were "like school, but without qualified teachers."
I suppose that description may fit some co-ops, but I'm fortunate to live in an area where that couldn't be farther from the truth, at any of the half-dozen co-ops in my general vicinity (and those are just the ones I've heard of).
First off, what is a homeschool co-op? Details vary, but in general it's when a group of homeschoolers get together--usually once a week--for a day of more-or-less classes. These are often, but not always, taught by the co-op parents, and the subject matter can range from belly dancing to advanced biology. There is usually a fee for classes, which generally goes to the individual teachers to pay for their time and supplies. Some large co-ops have a paid administrative staff, but most are truly co-operative, relying on parent volunteers for everything from scheduling classes to cleaning up the lunch room. The best organizations double as a support and social group for both parents and students. Some have the interpersonal drama you might expect from any organized group of individuals, but no more than you'd find in a PTA or neighborhood organization.
As for the teachers' qualifications, there are a few things to keep in mind. One, many former professional teachers homeschool their own kids; two, co-ops often attract outside (non-homeschooling) teachers and experts; and three, truly unqualified teachers are easy to avoid. As word gets around, and it does, about their lack of teaching skills or subject-matter knowledge, they're not invited back to the co-op or people just don't enroll in their classes. How many traditional-school parents have (or wish they had) that option? The reality is that public school teachers are often placed in classrooms far outside their areas of expertise (take a look at your state's minimum requirements for a teaching certificate sometime), and much of their class time is spent on high-stakes standardized test preparation. Worst-case at co-op: we've spent an hour a week for one semester in a worthless class. At a traditional school, that class with the "bad" teacher may be the student's entire day, every day (for lower grades) or their only opportunity to take an advanced class in the upper grades.
Some co-ops add on many of the extra-curriculars found at traditional schools: field trips, yearbooks, science fairs, student council, art shows, even prom and graduation ceremonies. Others focus on rigorous academic subjects, with highly qualified teachers and loads of homework. Still others are relaxed, with an eclectic mix of classes where age or grade levels are mere suggestions and parents, often with babes-in-arms, can be found sitting in on class sessions.
Whichever type you choose, co-ops can be a valuable addition to a homeschooler's toolbox for academics, extra-curriculars, and social time. My kids are currently taking a science & nature class from a long-time professional educator (who brings in all sorts of critters for the kids to see and touch) and a class on playing games (fall semester focused on old-school games and good sportsmanship, this spring is games from around the world complete with geography and culture lessons). In the past they have taken arts & crafts classes (with themes from a storybook reading), Lego construction (including simple machines), ballet, tap, and hip-hop dance, exploring water (from physical/chemical properties, art, and nature perspectives), local plants & wildlife (great day-long field trip that semester), and Waldorf-inspired art.
We also spend hours on the playground and at the park each week, just hanging out and playing with friends. This may be the best part of our co-op experience, as kids of all ages play together and look out for each other; cliques and bullying are practically non-existent.
So yes, it is sort of like school... but the difference isn't in the teachers, it's in the parents and students.