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Students work together at an Upstate Homeschool Co-op class.
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Students work together at an Upstate Homeschool Co-op class.

The ultimate hybrid

Homeschooling | Co-ops are quietly changing the homeschooling landscape

Issue: "Dead heat," Sept. 22, 2012

Beth Fleming attended public schools. Her father was superintendent of public schools in Michigan, and none of her friends homeschooled. So when she and her husband chose to homeschool, they were choosing a lonely road. Beth ran classes from the kitchen table and took their son Caleb on field trips, just the two of them.

When Caleb was in fourth grade, everything changed: What had started as a solitary experience turned into a communal journey when Fleming discovered a local homeschool co-op. Once a week Caleb went to classes while Fleming met a new group of homeschool moms who helped her navigate the ins and outs of home education.

Caleb is now entering the 11th grade and heading toward engineering. Co-ops have paid off for Fleming in more than one way: They've provided classes and social activities for Caleb, support for her, and more money in the bank account. This year she'll spend about $1,600 on Caleb's education, an investment that will earn him college credit since he's old enough to dual enroll in a local community college. Compared to the average cost of tuition at three local private schools, Fleming will save about $6,000 annually, not including books.

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Homeschool co-ops provide an attractive option for homeschooling parents: By partnering to create classes and activities that supplement their children's at-home curriculum, they combine the flexibility and privacy of traditional home education with the structure and socialization found in typical school settings. About one in five homeschool students participates in some form of curriculum support program like a co-op.

It's hard to know how extensive co-op use is, partly because co-ops are so diverse. Some, like Upstate Homeschool Co-op in Taylors, S.C., are highly organized and able to serve hundreds of students with a full list of classes and extracurricular activities. Others are small and informal - sometimes a co-op forms when two parents trade skills and knowledge and teach each other's children.

Suzanne Brown had never heard of a co-op when she founded Upstate in 1997. As a young homeschool mom of four toddlers, she recalled having to haul all of them across town for a preschool music class that she couldn't afford. "I just sat there and thought: 'I can do this with my friends.'" She pulled together five families and 19 students. They met in Brown's home. The younger children played while parents with strengths in particular topics taught the older children.

Fifteen years later, that small group has turned into 100 classes taught by 53 teachers who serve more than 400 students, including future engineer Caleb Fleming.

Julia Nelson, a homeschool mom of three in Montgomery Village, Md., has homeschooled for 11 years. Her co-op started when she met Ruth Marchese, another homeschool mom at her daughter's gymnastics studio. They discovered they both wanted to give their children an affordable and varied education while working around their daughters' tight gymnastics schedules.

They discovered they had different interests and areas of expertise, so they traded: Nelson teaches their children history and Spanish, while Marchese teaches piano and music theory. "It's generally a good thing parents can outsource subjects they aren't comfortable with," Nelson said. Brown added, "A lot of parents don't feel qualified or confident to teach high school. This hybrid schooling environment is ... giving them the structure to make that happen."

Outsourcing difficult topics is only one reason why parents use co-ops. Many want to expose their children to a different social environment and prepare them for a classroom setting. Florida native Pat Wesolowski designed her co-op 25 years ago to prepare her children for college. "Most people are more afraid of public speaking than of dying," she explained, so her co-op requires students to give oral reports at every meeting in front of parents and children: "We want to raise children who are not afraid to share what's on their mind with others, whether in a small group or in front of a large audience."

Beth Darst, director of SEEK co-op in Cary, N.C., fears some homeschool parents overuse co-ops: They want their homeschool to look like regular school, and they pack their children's schedules with numerous co-op classes and activities. Darst thinks each homeschool should be customizable, family-based, and unique. Her own co-op, SEEK (Spiritually and Educationally Enhancing Knowledge), has parents coming for two hours, once a week. Students take classes while parents split their time between a support-group style Bible study and an hour of volunteer teaching.

But co-ops also function as a portal to extracurricular activities. Celina Durgin, 18, now a sophomore at The King's College, attended co-op classes her whole life. She and her friends played in the band, sang in the choir, and threw picnics and parties together. She learned to manage her own schedule, splitting school between home and weekly co-op classes, and traveling as a member of the debate team on weekends. She enjoyed the family-like environment with teachers and peers she trusted: "It's harder for cliques to form, it's more like a family … and it creates a culture of introspection and openness."

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