Mothers Play Teacher at Nursery School Co-Ops

During summer's waning days for the past 20 years, a group of adults has descended on the men's locker room in Van Nuys-Sherman Oaks Park.

They place easels and paint pots in the shower area, stack books in the "library," pile toys in a corner and assemble a child's kitchen in the center of the room. What was a locker room is transformed quickly into the Sherman Oaks Co-operative Nursery School.

Formed in 1964, the school maintains the same egalitarian goals and long waiting list it had when it opened. Like 10 others in the San Fernando Valley Council of Parent Participation Nursery Schools, the co-op is fully operated by the parents whose children attend it. One parent from each family teaches one day weekly, attends meetings monthly, serves on committees yearly and cleans regularly.

Although the number of such preschools has decreased over the last decade as the number of working mothers has increased, nearly all Valley co-ops now report full enrollments and most maintain waiting lists.

Doris O'Hara, 32, council delegate representing the Woodland Hills Parent Participation Nursery School, attributes a resurgence of interest in co-ops to the many instances of child abuse alleged at Southland preschools. "People are becoming more involved," said O'Hara, a former preschool teacher who now operates a sweater-importing business.

Lisa Marlow, the teacher at the Woodland Hills co-op, agreed. "Parents are becoming more aware of preschools and want to be more involved, partly because of the bad publicity," she said. She said she thinks employers are becoming more supportive of parents modifying work schedules to be active in co-ops.

Many members of co-ops work part time or evening shifts to accommodate their morning school duties, and think the schedule adjustment is worth the opportunity to be part of their child's early education and socialization. Fathers also may assume teaching duties and are the focus of an annual Saturday "Father's Day." Generally, fathers in the co-ops don't volunteer for regular teaching assignments because of job demands. Their participation tends to be limited to cleaning and setting up and to the monthly parents' meeting.

"Fathers are encouraged to come whenever they can, but a lot of them work during the week and just can't come in," said Randi Stein, president of the Sherman Oaks Co-operative Nursery School. Her husband is off at mid-week and sometimes will take over for her teaching stint. "The kids go crazy and wild when a dad is there. We always like it when a dad shows up because it takes a load off the mothers, as the kids tend to stick around that father," Stein said. She said that a single father is about to join the co-op--a first for it.

Parent-participation schools charge about one-fourth of what day-care centers charge, averaging $50 monthly for five-day-a-week care, from 9 a.m. to noon. While most mothers welcome the financial savings, they say that is not the main reason they join co-ops.

Drama instructor Gloria Watts, 37, is in her second year as a member of the Woodland Hills co-op. "The time you spend far outweighs any bargain prices," she said. "The parents at this school do not consider it a burden to participate. They consider it a privilege."

Watts and her husband, Jeffrey, 34, previously were involved in a Northern California co-op. The Wattses checked out 18 schools before entering daughter Katy, now 7 1/2, in a co-op there. Watts knew when she moved to the Valley she wanted preschool involvement with daughter Sara, 4 1/2.

"The benefits for my children are vast," she said. "I think you become a better parent. If you know what your children are trying to express, you can fill in the holes."

Co-ops have drawbacks for working mothers with little time for mandatory monthly meetings and cleanup duties. What is judged an opportunity by one parent to be a force in shaping a co-op's direction may be viewed by another as an obligation difficult to incorporate into a busy schedule.

As president of the Woodland Hills co-op, Watts knows firsthand the difficulties of grass-roots democracy. "With 30 children, that is 60 different opinions. You can't please everyone all the time," she said. "Sometimes we get a parent who might be overwhelmed and doesn't complete the responsibilities. We just try to retrain her."

Watts, a drama teacher in Pierce College's community services division, said she likes the fact that parents have a strong voice in the school's curriculum. They also choose which teacher is hired. "We wanted someone who was progressive," she said, and she believes the parents found that in Marlow, 25, a preschool teacher for eight years.

Former high school teacher Janice Jones, 55, is teacher-director of the Sherman Oaks Co-operative Nursery School, attended each weekday morning by 19 children, ages 2 1/2 to 4 1/2. Jones often offers words of encouragement to youngsters whose creativity appears momentarily blocked as they are distracted by other classroom activities. And, if she can't help inspire them, usually one of the four mothers in the room can.

Walking over to the chalkboard, Jones sits beneath it and gathers the children around her. She holds up name cards and asks, "Whose name is this?" One by one, the children identify their cards, line up to wash their hands, then sit down for a snack of fresh fruit and vegetables.

Later, they form a circle to sing songs. When "We're Off to See the Wizard" is picked by 4-year-old Justin, he is greeted by a sea of wide eyes. He sings it to his audience. "You're going to have to teach that to the rest of us," Jones says, smiling.

Three-year-old Amy Stein scrutinizes the magnets and bucket of metallic objects, then spots a small hammer and brightly colored pieces of wood. Sitting at the table, she places an undistinguished piece of particle board before her and diligently hammers the wood pieces into a circular pattern.

Supervising her efforts and those of several other children is Barbara Morrow, a 36-year-old nurse whose daughter Julie, 4, also attends the park-based preschool. Morrow works part time at UCLA Medical Center to accommodate her co-op obligations and domestic duties involving her other daughter Amy, 6.

"The research I did long ago indicated that a co-op was the only way to go. In a co-op, you are teaching what you want your kids to learn and usually the other parents feel the same way," she said. "As far as effective parenting, I think I'd be lost if I had not joined."

Randi Stein, 30, president of the Sherman Oaks Co-operative Nursery School, said enrolling Amy in the co-op, placing her son, Aaron, 4 1/2, there "was the best thing we ever did. It really brought him out. It's like a little family community."

Rose Wood, 29, a part-time diet technician at St. Joseph Medical Center in Burbank, has discovered an added benefit of belonging to the Sherman Oaks preschool--a baby-sitting co-op. When she works, she uses it or another one near her home so she never pays extra for child care for her children, Kimberly, 3, and Megan, 5.

One longtime co-op mother of five children advocates having 2- and 4-year-olds mingle in one classroom, although the older ones receive extra pre-kindergarten training. "They learn to deal with children of different ages, even if they don't have siblings at home," said Rene O'Malley, 37, whose youngest child "graduated" last June.

In a co-op, said O'Malley, "You see how your child is progressing and interacting with other children and adults. You see your child making that transition from your sphere of influence to adjust to another sphere of influence."

Although her co-op experiences were beneficial, O'Malley said, such preschools present problems for daytime working mothers unless arrangements are made for them to leave work one morning weekly to teach and also have their children picked up daily. And, she observed, "some mothers can't deal with being in a classroom with 20 other kids."

Stein said that, as a co-op president, she sometimes must ask a family to leave."That's the hardest part about being president--asking someone to leave or telling a mother she isn't pulling her weight. Usually we send out a warning letter, and then give a second warning with a call." If no improvement results after the second warning, the family is asked to withdraw.

Parents chose co-op nursery schools because of the special programs such schools can offer. The Woodland Hills preschool, for example, occasionally provides professionals to work with the children and offers an educational program for parents. In November, Lisa Harwin, a speech therapist, will talk with each child and evaluate his or her speech patterns. At a recent parents' meeting, a hospital emergency-room physician told parents how to avoid medical crises at home.

Weekly field trips to such diverse places as the Los Angeles Zoo, Kidspace in Pasadena, bagel bakeries, Pierce College's Farm Tour and local fire stations are part of this and many Valley co-ops' itineraries.

Especially emphasized at Woodland Hills is the educational value of outings. During a recent pet shop visit, for example, the children chose a hampster and were given detailed instructions on care and cleaning. The children will visit a pumpkin patch and see pumpkins in various stages of development before buying them. During visits to the fire station, Watts has found that something as mundane as a chat with a firefighter does much to allay children's fears of a fire drill.

Another co-op that stresses the importance of weekly trips is the North Hills Co-operative Nursery School, where former co-op parent Nancy Schumann, 47, has taught for 20 years. "I felt they were very important for children to learn about the real world," she said of the field trips. After a visit to see farm animals, the children churn butter and beat eggs to make French toast, she said.

Schumann, who is working toward a master's degree in early childhood education, has incorporated changes in early educational conditioning into her program.

"Twenty years ago, we didn't worry about multicultural education in the school, for example," she said. "Now we make an effort to observe Cinco de Mayo and Japanese Children's Day." She also stresses activities that develop perceptual skills that later enhance reading abilities, and, in the cooking classes, eschews products such as white sugar for more wholesome items.

The North Hills co-op, next to Woodley Baptist Church in Granada Hills, varies from many co-ops in that it meets only Tuesday through Friday. It also provides a toddler program, administered by an assistant teacher, in which children and parents attend for two hours on Wednesdays to get hands-on experience with the equipment. The children also get exposed to Schumann's music program, which utilizes puppets.

Schumann views the co-op as a "fantastic" support system for families, especially those in which the mother has reduced her work schedule. "It's almost like the old extended family, the close association with other families and knowing you are having a say in your child's education. Many people end up as good friends for years later," she said.

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