Hillsboro Co-Op school turns 40
For many young families, enrolling a child in school for the first time can be just as hard on parents as it is for the children. It's the first time the responsibility and supervision of a child is in someone else's hands for a few hours.
But that's not an issue at Hillsboro Parent Preschool + Kindergarten, which doesn't operate like an average school.
The cooperative parent preschool and kindergarten is managed entirely by parents, and while it isn't the only one of its kind, it's a rarity in Western Washington County. This year, the school is celebrating its 40th anniversary.
"It's super important to the philosophy of the school that everyone has the opportunity to contribute, but we respect that not every family can contribute in the same way," said Martha Calus-McLain who serves as co-registrar at the downtown Hillsboro preschool, which rents space in the Hillsboro Methodist United Church, 148 N.E. Eighth Ave. "Some families have the ability to really go all in."
Teachers at the school are the only paid employees. Other jobs at the school are done by the family members of its students, who take on year-long roles volunteering to help keep the school running. Duties can include anything from purchasing paper towels and soap, to recruitment, to paying the bills and filing taxes. Each day, a minimum of three parent volunteers help out in each classroom, providing support Calus-McLain said.
The school has two preschool classes, offered two to three times each week, as well as a kindergarten class.
With more than 40 kids enrolled in the school, the only criteria for joining is a willingness from the family to contribute to the co-op model, said Calus-McLain, whose two young children attended the school.
"Education is really important to us and we wanted to make sure that we had the tools we needed to ask the right questions going forward, and to really make sure we knew how to be the best advocates we could be for our kids," she said. "That was sort of the premise going in and then the longer we've been in the school, the more we've realized we are not only giving our kids this really incredible foundation for future learning, we are giving ourselves a really great foundation for future advocacy for our kids."
The school's curriculum focuses, in large part, on nature which can be seen even in the school's playground, which has no play structure but instead a huge sanded area, a boulder to climb on, a garden to plant in and other items meant to prompt children's imaginations when playing outside.
"I can't leave here," said preschool teacher Penny Berrien who has been teaching at the school for 28 years. "My heart is with the difference we make in family's lives."
Berrien, who started her career in Portland Public Schools, said the learning environment is unlike any other.
"The children become leaders in the schools that they go into, both public and private, because they have developed skills, their focus is on learning to help each other," she said. "I see them, their influence, and they are just making a difference and they are positive and they learn to accept, not just accept, but to advocate for others."
Berrien said it isn't just children who benefit from the close-knit learning environment the co-op school provides.
"The children have parents who have learned positive approaches to learning," she said. "Children benefit all the way through for the rest of their lives. In addition, they are exposed to other styles, to other family cultures. Each family has their own individual culture … so the children benefit from all that."
Berrien added, "We come with our own set of understandings of the world, and so when we have all these different parents working with all these different kids, even if you are unclear about how to help support your own child, because your child's temperament is maybe different, there will be another parent to help support that."
Aja Appel attended the school in the late 1980s and now has a son at the school. She said the co-op model serves as a way for parents to better understand their child's learning experience and to build a sense of community.
"When I went and observed (the school), it was the same type of model as it was when I was a child," Appel said. "It was very play-based, very hands-on and exploratory. ... I think the co-op model is really beneficial for parents because in most schools you drop off your child at the door, you pick them up at the end of the school day and you will ask your child, 'What did you do in school today?' and they will say something like, 'I don't know' or 'I just played' and they won't have a lot of details about what went on at school that day."
But Hillsboro Parent Preschool is different, she said.
"In a co-op model you really get to know the other families really well, you get to know the children really well and you know kind of the rhythms and the daily schedule of the (school)," she said. "And because you are there a lot of the days, you also know what they are learning about, and you know how to then ask really detailed, more specific questions about their day to get a more interesting answer."
Appel said the parents of the children also build their own sort of community and are there to help each other out even after the school day ends.
"I think the best thing about it is that community of support for parents and that goes outside of the walls of the classroom as well," she said. "I think that you can't find that in other schools. ... I think it's the friendship and that sense of community that kind of transcends time and that can carry on for decades."
It's been 40 years since the school opened its doors, and it has taken decades of committed parents to keep it alive, Calus-McLain said.
"I think every parent in the school right now feels really proud of our 40th anniversary," she said. "The fact that this has been going for four decades — 40 years where this business, essentially, has been handed off from group of parents to group of parents and we have continued to (not only) stay open but also thrive across all those years. … It's just really great to be connected to something bigger."
By Olivia Singer
Reporter, Forest Grove News-Times and Hillsboro Tribune
Follow Olivia at @oliviasingerr
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