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Lacking Options, Ditmas Park Parents Increasingly Turn to Co-op Pre-Schools

Whether it's to save money, have a hand in decision making, or avoid commuting to another neighborhood for a 2s program, more and more parents are banding together to start their own schools.

Ask a Ditmas Park parent of a 2-year-old if they are planning to send their child to preschool, and they will begin to do the specialized hand-wringing dance associated with all New York City schooling.

And even then, there might be some who take a deep breath and tell you that they are thinking of joining or starting a cooperative preschool.

In Ditmas Park, where there are few daycare and licensed preschool options, parents of 2-year-olds have a choice: commute their kids to an out-of-neighborhood playschool, or start their own.

Increasingly, many parents are choosing the latter, and new cooperative preschools are cropping up on nearly every block.

What’s a cooperative preschool?

  • Parents of similarly aged children band together and hire a teacher, who may or may not impose an academic theory on the class
  • Kids meet for about 3 hours a day, between 2 and 5 times a week
  • Parents donate or collect books, toys, and other supplies for the “classroom,” which can be roving or in a dedicated space
  • Parents volunteer for other administrative duties, such as keeping the calendar, being treasurer, ordering supplies, or cleaning the space. In some cases they take shifts serving as the teacher's assistant.
  • Co-op preschools are often called "play schools" or "playgroups" in order to deflect attention. (Childcare outside of the home, overseen by the Department of Health and Human Hygiene, require permits that would be difficult for these ad-hoc groups to qualify for.)

Caitlin Fitzgordon, mother of a first-grader and a 4-year-old boy, talked with Patch about her experience in various co-ops in the neighborhood.

“The major reason I first entered into a co-op scenario was economic,” Fitzgordon said. "I was staying home with my daughter without the extra funds to pay a sitter to give me some free time. So four of us got together to just do a babysitting share.

"When our kids were 1, we took turns having two moms with all four kids for three hours two days a week. It was great. And from there we decided to hire a teacher for the following year when the kids were 2. So it evolved organically.”

Fitzgordon’s daughter was initially in a “class” of six kids. The small size of the group as well as the fact that there was very little for her to do in terms of participation worked well for her. But Fitzgordon also loved that she knew what was going on at the school.

Also, it was on the cheap, in part because it rotated between the parents’ homes, as most co-ops do. But last year, Fitzgordon chose a different sort of co-op for her son. That school, at Marlborough Road near Cortelyou, stays in a dedicated space. Paying rent raises the cost, but it cuts down on the chaos.

That co-op is one of three that have been meeting this year at the home of Jennifer and Chris Wilenta. (Full disclosure—that is where this writer sends her son.)  

Some neighborhood co-ops are hiring an assistant to help the teacher. This makes it unnecessary for parents to rearrange their schedules to do “shifts.”

Another interesting model, also seen on Marlborough Road, is having a teacher who speaks in a different language. Children play, eat snacks, learn about the weather, wrestle for toys, wash their hands, and sing songs, but their teacher speaks only Spanish to them. They mostly respond in English, but they can learn how to understand a Spanish speaker while they are playing.

Co-ops are popular, but they are not new. The Popcorn Cooperative Playgroup is probably the oldest established cooperative for children in the neighborhood, and it has been meeting for about 30 years. Currently, it meets at the Flatbush Dutch Reformed Church. Shana Norberg, a parent who sent her son (now 7) to Popcorn says the coop is based loosely on the Summerhill model of “free schools” where kids are free to explore what they are interested in. “The kids have the run of the place,” she says.

There are plenty of reasons for starting kids in “school” at a very early age. Working parents need childcare, stay-at-home parents need a break, and toddlers need entertainment and chances to socialize.

A Department of Education spokesman said he believes the pre-k programs provided by the city are the best option for children.

"Our pre-K programs are aligned with what we do in kindergarten and that work translates to successful students," said Frank Thomas. 

When asked about the lack of available spots in some areas, he said, "We’re always trying to expand within the neighborhoods that need additional seats."

As for programs for younger kids, Thomas said, "We don’t take a position on services that are provided before 4. We understand parents need daycare options and we want to make sure those options are safe but that’s not really under our purview at the DOE." 

To find or develop a preschool in Ditmas Park, post on the Flatbush Family Network Yahoo group, join the Cortelyou Moms Yahoo group, or join the Ditmas Park co-op preschools Google Group.

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