Last month I shared [five reasons to consider starting or joining a homeschool co-op]. This month, I’m sharing five steps to start your own co-op based on my experience launching and running a girls’ book club co-op this school year.
If you’re unfamiliar with the world of homeschool co-ops, my homeschooling sisters and I share our various experiences with co-ops on our family blog, NextGen Homeschool. What I’ve learned so far is that the key ingredients to structuring a new homeschool co-op are a common mission, agreement on the logistics and expectations from the students and participating parents, and some divine intervention. I believe that when God is calling families to come together for His purposes, He truly makes provision for all the details. When it comes to the details, here are five steps to take when you are planning to start a homeschool co-op of your own.
Start a Homeschool Co-Op, Step One: Ideas & Prayer
Good ideas are always just that — good. A God idea, however, is always a great idea — because you have His strength to back you up and He is glorified! Before you take another step forward in the process of starting a homeschool co-op, pray for guidance and wisdom from the Lord. I believe He will lead you in the right direction if developing a co-op is the right thing for you and your family.
During my first year of homeschooling, we participated in a semi-formal co-op for families with elementary age students in our local homeschool group. It was once a week, and subjects such as art, music, geography, science, and foreign languages were taught by volunteer moms. However, that setup was disbanded the next year because our group grew so large, we could no longer accommodate all interested families without making a major shift into a structured and formalized co-op.
My three daughters (11, 9 and 4 at the time) still had plenty of social opportunities through other venues, such as homeschool PE, elementary presentation day, and AWANA, but I really missed the weekly co-op. So after attending a workshop on how to start an informal co-op, provided by experienced moms in our local homeschool group, I prayed about whether or not I should take the initiative to start a co-op myself. I began to feel a nudge from the Lord to do a tween girls’ book club, both to give my girls a good social opportunity and to turn them on to books with Godly character focus. The more I prayed about it, the more confirmation I received from the Lord in various ways that this was the right move for us.
Once you are clear about your reason for starting a homeschool co-op and what type of co-op you intend to create, you’re ready to organize your co-op idea through preparation and research.
Start a Homeschool Co-Op, Step Two: Research & Recruiting
Even if you haven’t shared your idea with anyone, I think it’s important to start clarifying the mission for your homeschool co-op through research and preparation. For example, what do you want the central purpose of the co-op to be? Educational? Social? Spiritual? A combination of these?
Draft a preliminary mission statement so that you will have focus for your research. For example, I decided that the purpose of our girls’ book club co-op would be slightly educational (reading is learning), but more importantly, it would be a social opportunity for moms and their tween daughters to get together on a regular basis and share our homeschooling journey. It would also touch on spiritual growth through discussion of the Biblical principles and character qualities portrayed in the books we would read.
In your research, you’ll be looking for books, tools, and other resources that you may want to use in your homeschool co-op. For the girls’ book club, I researched several current Christian authors writing for the tween audience and checked out their books from the library. I read a few myself and asked my daughters to skim them as well. This way I was ready to bring more to the table than just an idea when I began to recruit co-op participants.
After you have done your homework, it’s time to share your idea. Because this is your homeschool co-op, you have full control over how you decide to recruit participants. You can make a public announcement of your co-op with local groups you already participate with or invite specific families — it’s up to you and your personal mission for the co-op.
I started pitching the idea to moms that I thought would be a perfect fit for this group based on their daughters’ ages and my relationship with the mothers. Before I knew it, we were going to be full with more than 14 families wanting to participate, so I decided early on that I wouldn’t publicize after all. The fact that many of the moms shared with me the same desire to accomplish this mission was confirmation that God wasn’t just moving me, He was moving us. Praise Him for the wonderful and mysterious way that He works with us when we are listening to Him!
Start a Homeschool Co-Op, Step Three: Mission & Structure
You might decide that you want full control over the content and structure of your homeschool co-op. Personally, I wanted to involve the families who were participating in finalizing the mission and structure of our group because I wanted buy-in and commitment. I think it’s really important for everyone involved to be on the same page, and working together to hash out the details of the homeschool co-op brought us together.
Three things you want to agree upon as a group (or have everyone sign off on if you’ve already decided) are content, logistics, and communication. Content is pretty straightforward: What will you being doing? Even though your preliminary mission statement has already identified the purpose and mission for your co-op, you want to get as specific as possible about what you will be doing during your time together.
Logistics and communication aren’t as obvious, so here are some starting points for that discussion:
- Frequency & length of meetings
- Group size & who is participating (ie. can non-participating siblings tag along?)
- Responsibilities and division of labor
- A code of conduct
- Group communication (email? collaborative web tool? text & phone?)
It’s not always easy to be on the same page about some of the logistical things, especially when siblings of varying ages are involved as they most often are with homeschooling families. Families usually have other extra-curricular activities that you’ll have to work around. And so on and so forth… you know what I mean if you’ve been homeschooling for a year or so.
Praise God that we were able to accommodate the needs of almost every mom and daughter who wanted to be a part of this semester’s book club! Another confirmation that we were on the right track.
Start a Homeschool Co-Op, Step Four: Launch & Fine Tune
Both semesters of our girls’ book club, we kicked off the co-op with a social mixer. I think having a “launch” gathering is a great way to provide connection time for the families, and to go over all the details one final time as a group. We had co-op “tips and guidelines” time for the girls (in other words, the rules!), and we had a mother’s FYI time at the end while the girls played. The purpose of the launch party was to solidify our plan and enjoy getting to know one another.
Once you start meeting together for official co-op time, you may find right away that something that sounded great in theory doesn’t hold up in practice. This is where constant communication with the co-op group members is vital. Don’t forget that the way you like to communicate may not work for everyone: some like text, some like e-mail, some avoid technology and would rather get a phone call. Find out what your group needs to communicate best, then have a communication plan in place so members know how to send feedback, reach each other, share photos and ideas easily, etc. For our group, we chose a Shutterfly.com free Share Site to keep our calendar, documents, message board, snack sign-ups, and photos all in one place.
Plan to fine tune as you go — in fact, you should expect it! As homeschoolers, we have the freedom to adjust when necessary. We aren’t stuck with a year-long plan that we can’t change. Take advantage of the flexibility of homeschooling and work together with your homeschool co-op members to fine tune your co-op to make sure that your mission is being accomplished.
Start a Homeschool Co-Op, Step Five: Evaluate & Evolve
Although I am really pleased about the relative success of our first year, we hit a few road bumps, too. For starters, we lost a few families along the way due to schedule conflicts and other commitments. Life happens. We’ve had snowstorms blow in on the afternoon we were supposed to meet, requiring an adjustment of the semester meeting schedule each time this happened. We’ve had illness, unexpected travel, forgotten snacks… Life happens! I did a survey at the end of our semester, and we made some changes as a result of our experiences together.
On the other hand, we’ve gained new families this spring. We mothers have grown as friends, and the girls have developed new friendships they would otherwise not have. We’ve learned a lot about how the Bible relates to everything you read. We’ve studied quite a variety of characters and found something to learn about each girl. We’ve studied history, made lapbooks, and had a lot of hands-on fun (like making corn husk dolls!).
I knew before I started that I couldn’t attempt to do this if I wasn’t going to hand it over to the Lord completely and let Him be in charge. I prayed for the right families to be involved, and I believe that happened. I prayed for my girls and that my original mission for this homeschool co-op would be accomplished for them, so I am trusting God to work in their hearts in a way that only He can. I prayed for the moms and daughters who would join us and that their own journeys with Jesus and each other would be strengthened, so I am releasing that to the Lord because I am just the vessel being poured out — and He is filling me and will fill them.
Right now the plan is to continue next year, but I’m not sure yet exactly what the co-op will look like in its second year. I know there will definitely be more evaluation in our future, followed by more fine tuning and evolving. I don’t see the next step very clearly yet, but thankfully, God does!