Secret Co-ops: One Mom Breaks the Rules to Send Her Son to Preschool

Secret Co-ops: One Mom Breaks the Rules to Send Her Son to Preschool

Secret Co-ops: One Mom Breaks the Rules to Send Her Son to PreschoolBeing a mom means doing a lot of things that, before you had kids, you could never have imagined yourself doing.

We've been known to head out of the house with spit-up somewhere on our person—and have definitely uttered the phrase, “Do you need to tinkle?”

But how far would you really go for your kid?

What if all you wanted was for your child to get into a decent preschool? If circumstances in your life (money, location, eligibility) prevented that from happening, would you circumvent the law?

Soni Sangha, a Brooklyn mom who found herself in just that situation, didn't think twice. Last year, when her 3-year-old son was denied admission to a local preschool—in a part of the city where roughly 28,817 children competed for 19,834 slots last year—she took matters into her own hands by joining forces with other parents in the neighborhood and educating her son at an in-home preschool co-op that they created and managed themselves.

Then she published her story in the New York Times.

In many cases, co-op preschools are formed illegally, since getting the required permits and background checks to create a government-approved one can be expensive and time-consuming ... so most co-ops skip it.

We caught up with Sangha to find out what the world of underground preschool co-ops are all about—and whether her son is better off as a result.

Start at the beginning. You were looking into preschools for your son and …

Basically, we got a rude awakening. Schools here are expensive—and I don’t think New York is unique. Probably any city where schools are hard to come by is the same. You’re paying for the space, teachers, resources … it all adds up quickly, which translates into tuition. When we started looking at schools, they were a lot more expensive than we ever dreamed, like buying a small, new car every year! It would been about $8,000-$10,000 for part-time care, and that was the low end, not the Ivy League breeding grounds.

Full-time care, meaning five full days a week (which wasn't what we were looking for, but what a lot of people need), was something like $15,000 per year. It’s nuts. Public schools, which are the second option, are free, but we couldn’t get into those because we didn’t get a seat through the lottery held by the New York City Board of Education. We did talk a lot with our local school, hoping we could snag a spot if someone didn't show up. That just never happened.

How were you first introduced to the concept of a co-op?

The preschool co-op model has existed in our neighborhood for a while, and in New York City in general, so it’s not something we invented. For our part, my husband and I had just moved here, and one day we happened to run into a woman who was starting the co-op that we eventually joined. We got to talking and that’s how we got involved.

How did you know what to look for in a co-op preschool?

Because it was our first experience with school at all for our son, we wanted it to be something that would fit with our general attitude toward schooling, and something that we could make the transition easy for him. We didn't want it to be this whole big crazy deal with interviews and tests, which is standard for preschool entry here in New York and in other big cities. This option seemed like a good solution. It was low-key, and the most important aspect was making sure the kids were having a good time.

How did the co-op work?

All the members were interested in being as cost-effective as possible, so we operated it out of our homes, rotating through our living rooms. Both dads and moms participated, and of those who were working, they luckily had jobs that offered flexibility enough to make this type of school a possibility for them. The parent whose home it was would assist the teacher as an extra set of hands to help the kids get snacks, put their coats on, that kind of stuff, and the curriculum basically followed what the kids were interested in at the time. The classes lasted three hours a day, and there were eight kids in the class, which is smaller than most public classes. In total, we had eight kids and a teacher and an assistant. I think, if I were to advise someone else, I’d say start out even smaller, if you can.

What were the expenses like?

We paid for the cost of the teacher and the supplies, which ended up being less than $3,000 per family per year.

How did your son respond to the experience?

He got along great. It was a very good transition for him. He’s had a wonderful experience and has really come to value the role of the teacher, in terms of offering up instruction and guidance. He'll be eligible for kindergarten in the coming fall, and we’re working toward getting him comfortable with going from a small classroom to a larger, public one. I've thought of home-schooling and envy those who do, because it sounds lovely. (See how one mom home-schooled her kids here.) I don't consider myself an educator, though, in that I'm not well versed in educational philosophy, so I'm not sure it's a good fit for our family, and for me in particular.

Instead, we’re going to prep my son for public school by making small changes in his schedule, making his days a bit longer and getting him into different types of activities with more children and fewer teachers. Of course, spots in public schools aren’t guaranteed here, either. In areas where a lot of families live and it’s hard to get into schools, people do things like this, invent their own school system.

So, your plan is to send him to public school?

Public school cannot really deliver the attention that we have been able to give our kids thus far, but our co-op model is not really meant to sustain the kids as they get older and their needs change. It just happens that in our neighborhood, early education is hard to come by. We were not the first co-op, and we will not be the last, because a cost-effective education solution is just necessary. So, we did what we had to do, and focused on our goal of a safe education that parents participate in alongside their children ... above anything else.

What has the experience been like for you as parents?

It’s wound up being a really great experience. You get to form a community with these other people who are all interested in having their kids learn in similar ways, where the focus is on learning in as fun a way as possible. We’ve met people we value, and we’ve had the pleasure of watching their children grow with ours. We also grew from it in ways we didn’t think we would. We are not folks who sit around reading parenting books, but now we’ve developed a sense of what education means to us, what we think it should look like, what we feel our role in it is.

We’ve seen our child learn firsthand, because we’ve been in the classroom, and we know what works with him and what doesn’t. I could see his social interactions and watch his face as he was learning. My view of education is, basically, that all children at this age should feel loved, primarily, and from that love should develop a true enthusiasm for learning. In other words, it shouldn't matter if it's Waldorf instruction or a free-form play group, or if it's in a school or a living room.

What would you say to people who think this type of education is wrong?

My belief is that the government is legitimately trying to look out for the welfare of children and make sure that kids are not exposed to anything they shouldn’t be, and that's why they make people apply for tons of permits in order to create a legal preschool co-op. What they neglect, however, is the role of the parent in this particular model, where children are never left unattended, and parents are hyper-vigilant, because that’s what they are in life anyway, for better or worse.

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