Homeschooling can be a great option for families looking for more flexibility and personal influence over their children’s education.
It can, however, also be quite challenging, particularly for families who are new to homeschooling or wonder about their own ability to teach certain subjects.
One way that such homeschoolers can overcome some of the difficulties and really enrich their children’s education is through a homeschool co-op.
What Is A Homeschool Co-Op?
A homeschool co-op forms when a number of families who are homeschooling their children come together in order to share their expertise, share resources and tips and offer one another support.
They are usually designed to supplement, rather than replace, homeschooling efforts at home with additional educational opportunities, such as specialized classes, field trips, social activities, standardized testing and prep and much more, that may be hard for an individual family to afford or provide on their own.
There are many different kinds of homeschool co-ops out there, with some being purely academic and other more focused on socialization or specific activities, such as arts and crafts projects, language study, religious study or even community service.
In a similar vein, co-ops can come in all sizes, from small groups of socially-connected families to larger co-ops with dozens of member families (or more) from near and far, and may set up base in as diverse locations as churches, members’ homes, parks, unused commercial buildings, schools and more.
How Do Homeschool Co-Ops Work?
Homeschool co-ops are about as diverse as the families that make up their membership, which means they vary quite a bit considering the personalized nature of homeschooling in general.
While there are a lot of differences between them, they do tend to have a few things in common, at least broadly speaking, with regards to how they work.
The first thing parents should probably be aware of is that homeschool co-ops are typically run on a volunteer basis, usually with parents taking on important administration, organization and facilitation roles throughout the year.
How much parental involvement can vary quite a bit, with different co-ops having different expectations for parents.
Some, for example, may require parents to be present and involved during all activities, giving the experience a far more involved, community-like feeling, while others may allow parents to drop their students off, which can give parents a break and allow them to focus on other tasks for a while.
In addition, some co-ops may hire teachers (being somewhat more like a microschool) or other individuals with specialized experience or knowledge to lead activities and lessons, providing a little bit more structure and more of a formal academic experience while still allowing parents to oversee and control their children’s education to a high degree.
Known as a university model, this is kind of a hybrid model to homeschooling that runs specific formal classes, in core subjects and/or electives, on specific days of the week as determined by the homeschooling families involved.
Leadership of a homeschool co-op can also vary quite a bit depending on the size and preferences of the member families.
Some co-ops are a bit more loose and grass-roots, with tasks being assigned and run on by consensus and on an as needed/as able volunteer basis.
Such co-ops tend to offer parents a bit more personal flexibility and can feel a bit more democratic, creating a stronger sense of community.
On the other hand, without a defined leadership structure decision making can be a bit slower and feel more chaotic and there can be less direct accountability.
Other co-ops, however, may be a bit more formal, with one or more elected officials and/or a board in charge of administering the group, arranging activities and making decisions.
Such a structure offers a clear hierarchy of decision making, which can make things a bit more efficient and adaptable, and accountability, as parents know who to praise or blame for particular outcomes.
On the downside, on occasions a more formal organization can feel very political, potentially creating an in-group/out-group situation among parents that can cause issues, and it can take away some parental control and influence, which might be why its members got into homeschooling in the first place.
Although we’ll discuss the topic in more detail a little later on, it’s worth mentioning that homeschool co-ops can require contributions from families to run beyond just personal involvement.
Depending on the co-op in question, these can either be in the form of membership fees or as-needed contributions to cover materials, rentals, activities, trips and other expenses.
What Kinds of Homeschool Co Ops are Out There?
There are quite a few different types of homeschool co-ops out there, each with their own unique structure, style and focus, which can suit the many different homeschooling approaches and preferences that parents may have.
Academic co-ops tend to focus more on supplementing at-home lessons, particularly in math, science, history and language arts.
These can offer more enriched lessons and activities that parents may find tough to teach on their own and may even offer standardized testing and evaluations, such as the CAT and others, that can help parents track student knowledge and achievement and adhere to any local requirements that homeschools may have to adhere to.
Conversely, there are also homeschool co-ops that focus more on extracurriculars, such as music, art and sport, which can allow parents to focus their attention on delivering core instruction to their children.
Faith-based co-ops can help parents incorporate stronger religious instruction and guidance into their homeschool, more of an opportunity for those within a specific denomination or religion to socialize and share resources.
This can be particularly helpful for homeschoolers who belong to a religion where homeschooling is perhaps a little less common and where specific faith-based resources might be more limited.
For example, Jewish homeschoolers may find a homeschool co-op useful in order to organize and arrange Hebrew language lessons, bar or bat mitzvah preparation and to help with more faith-oriented socialization.
Finally, there are co-ops that are set up to accommodate particular student age groups or students with specific educational needs.
Some co-ops, for example, may focus on early educational needs, providing the kinds of multisensory and social activities that can help preschool-aged children thrive.
Others, as a further example, may focus more on high school students, with an eye towards providing more help with standardized test prep, college level math and science lessons, field trips, labs, courses and materials for specific electives and, of course, more age-appropriate (and safe) socialization opportunities.
Can I Still Homeschool At Home And Join a Homeschool Co-Op?
Parents can certainly still homeschool their children independently while participating in a homeschool co-op.
As we’ve stated previously, most co-ops are designed to act as a supplement to at-home learning and only meet occasionally (once or twice a week, barring any specific activities).
In this way, homeschooling parents who join a co-op can benefit from the many different educational resources, socialization opportunities, and support that a co-op can provide, while still being more involved with their child’s day-to-day education at home.
Homeschool Co Ops Vs Other Group Structures
The terms homeschool co-op and microschool are sometimes thought of as interchangeable, but the truth is that these two forms of learning are quite different.
As we’ve stated, homeschool co-ops are usually groups of homeschooling families who have loosely organized to supplement their own home learning by sharing resources and ideas, conducting occasional lessons and socializing.
Homeschool co-ops are run and usually led by parents and can be quite variable in size and required level of participation – some co-ops only meet about once a month or so.
In contrast, microschools are very small, independent schools that have been organized by parents as a direct alternative to traditional school learning.
Microschools are led by one or more teachers who have been hired on by parents and specifically teach a curriculum chosen by the member families.
Microschools, on the other hand, are small, independent schools that operate on a smaller scale than traditional schools. They typically have no more than 12-15 students, with a mix of ages and grade levels, and are led by a professional teacher or small team of teachers, who take over the role of teaching for one or more subjects.
The curriculum is often personalized to meet the needs and interests of the students, and the lessons usually take place according to a more frequent, set schedule.
In general, microschools tend to require less direct parental involvement, tend to act more as a source of formal and regular outside learning, and may have far fewer member families involved who also may also be more personally connected to one another.
More than that, microschools tend to also cost a lot more to run owing to the need to pay the teacher’s salary (or salaries), as well as any learning materials and activity costs.
While they may sound similar, homeschooling groups and homeschool co-ops can actually be two very different structures.
A homeschool group is typically a group or gathering of families who come together on occasion to take part in different activities, such as social events, field trips and activities based on specific interests or religious reasons.
While they can include academic activities, homeschool groups aren’t usually as centered around them as co-ops and may not involve quite as much sharing of teaching responsibilities, knowledge and resources among those involved.
Online Homeschooling Communities
An online homeschooling community is a virtual network of homeschooling families who have connected, sometimes from across the world, through various online platforms.
Whether through forums or social media groups, these online communities provide support and resources to one another digitally (through messages, email, cloud storage, zoom meetings and more), regardless of where they are located.
Really, the difference between a homeschool co-op and an online homeschool community boils down to the mode and level of personal interaction.
Both types of communities allow their members to support one another, to chat and socialize (albeit in different ways) and even participate in budget-saving discounts and group buys.
Homeschool co-ops, however, are more face to face, with families gathering together periodically in a physical location (church, member’s house or a local community center) to offer classes, social activities and more.
This offers a level of direct human interaction that cannot really be matched online, but at the same time tends to limit membership to families living to within a reasonable commuting distance.
Online communities, on the other hand, can involve families from across the world interacting online (something that worldschoolers might appreciate).
This can give homeschools pretty much 24/7 access to support and means a lot less travel and organizational requirements on the part of parents.
On the other hand, online homeschool communities don’t tend to require as much participation from their members, which can mean that a bulk of the families involved may be there to simply access resources and information and may not offer any help or interaction.
How Much Do Homeschool Co-Ops Typically Cost To Join?
There are a lot of factors that go into the cost of a typical homeschool co-op and, sadly, there is no easy one-size fits all answer.
Some co-ops can require a significant financial commitment, while others are completely parent run and have no membership fees whatsoever.
Generally speaking, however, parents can expect to cover, at a minimum, their share of materials fees, field trip costs and any and all costs associated with events, transport, activities and classes.
Membership fees, where they exist, can range from less than a hundred to several hundred dollars or more per year, depending on the co-op in question, with most of the money going to administrative costs, facility rentals, consumables, teaching fees and so on.
Some co-ops charge a per-family fee, while others charge per student- something to keep in mind depending on the number of children in a household.
It should be noted, however, that the costs associated with a homeschool co-op can often be at least partially offset by the savings they provide, such as group buy discounts, bulk purchases and so on.
How To Find A Homeschool Co-Op
There are a number of ways parents can find a homeschool co-op near them.
Many co-ops don’t really publicly advertise themselves and tend to rely on word of mouth to attract new members.
As a result, one of the better ways to find one is for parents to simply ask other homeschooling families in the area, particularly those who share their personal values and preferences.
Not only can doing so provide a ready introduction to other parents, it can also help make sure that any co-op found is a good fit.
For those who don’t really know or can’t find other homeschooling families in their area, homeschool conventions and conferences can be another way to learn about co-ops in a particular area.
Larger co-ops tend to send representatives to these events who staff booths or tables where parents can speak directly with them and learn more about what they offer members.
For those who live more rurally, don’t know anyone in their area or can’t attend a conference personally, the internet can also be a helpful source of information.
There are a number of co-op directories and databases online, such as Homeschool Hall and others, that can list co-ops by subject matter, location, faith and other criteria.
Finally, parents can also use social media to connect with homeschool co-ops.
Many co-ops have Facebook groups where they share resources, discuss things and generally connect with one another and parents can often message the group moderator for more information.
What Parents Should Ask A Homeshool Co-Op Before Joining
Before joining any co-op, parents should always make sure that the group’s structure, curriculum, fees and requirements are a good fit.
Some questions parents might want to ask might include:
- How is the co-op structured – in particular, is it based around select subjects, core subjects or is it more broadly encompassing?
- Is this a faith-based co-op – and if so, does it fit their religion/denomination/particular level of adherence?
- What is the age range of student members – in other words, will it be a good fit for the child when it comes to socialization?
- What are the co-ops fees, if any and what are some typical monthly costs?
- Does co-op membership offer discounts or any other benefits for instructional material?
- What are expectations for involvement with regards to parents and students – in particular with regards to planning, teaching, behavior, attendance, and participation
- How often does the co-op meet, where and what is a typical meeting like…is it reasonable
- How many members are in the co-op
- What curricula or materials does the co-op usually use or follow for core courses and are these a good fit?
- What extracurricular activities, if any, does the co-op run?
Benefits Of Joining A Co-Op For Homeschoolers
Benefits for Parents
Joining a homeschool co-op can have a number of benefits for parents.
Community and support
Homeschool kids can be hard…and sometimes lonely.
Homeschool co-ops can provide families with support and, perhaps more importantly, a shared community of like-minded individuals to fall back on.
Parents can use the co-op to connect with other homeschooling parents in order to share ideas and resources, offer and receive tips and, of course, receive guidance and encouragement when things get tough.
Homeschool co-ops can also be a good way for parents to work together and divide up the many duties of homeschooling children, such as teaching, finding curricula, planning lessons and coordinating assessments and activities, making things a lot easier for any one family.
This shared responsibility between members can be particularly helpful for larger families struggling with busy schedules, giving them more time and energy to focus on other aspects of family life, and those new to homeschooling who may be struggling.
Access to specialized knowledge
Another way co-ops can help homeschoolers is in providing access to deeper knowledge in a specific subject.
Quite a few co-ops either have parents who are experts in a given area (or can find someone who is), which can be very helpful for those parents without the requisite background in that area, allowing them to go far beyond the scripting provided in a given textbook or curriculum.
Week after week, month after month, it can be hard for many parents to make sure they keep to a high level of education and rigor.
Many co-ops can help parents stay on track through individual goal setting and feedback, and just the fact that parents have an invested group of like-minded peers they can meet with can often create a sense of interpersonal commitment and support that can keep them going.
Further, many co-ops may offer their members access to standardized testing and assessments, which can be a good way of assessing a student’s abilities and identify their relative strengths and weaknesses – something that’s not always quite as easy to do at home alone.
One big draw for parents when it comes to homeschool co-ops is the opportunity they provide to save money on supplies, resources and even curricula.
Bulk Buying Discounts
Larger co-ops in particular can (and often do) pool their resources and buy supplies and educational materials in bulk, which can lead to significant discounts and individual savings for members from vendors, suppliers and activity providers.
Second hand curricula and swaps
With members often having a few children moving through the K-12 grade range, co-ops can be a great (and trusted) place for parents to swap curricula and generally buy second hand books and resources from each other, saving a good amount of money per year in the process.
Whether by buying better lab equipment, taking more impressive field trips, inviting guest teachers or getting greater availability of impressive software, co-ops often pool member money together to achieve greater educational experiences than any one family could reasonably provide.
Benefits for students
It’s not just parents who can benefit from joining a homeschool co-op.
Co-ops can also have a lot to offer their students, including:
Finding the time and other families in order to provide opportunities for kids to build friendships can be challenging at times for homeschooling families.
With co-ops, students have an opportunity to frequently meet, interact with and befriend other homeschooling students with similar backgrounds and values.
More than just being a social club of sorts, co-ops can also provide opportunities for field trips, service projects and social events, as well as sports and extracurriculars, that can let students bond and develop key social skills (such as communication and teamwork), helping them become more well-rounded and social individuals.
Diverse learning experiences
Co-ops that offer classes can give students used to learning at home a chance to experience learning and testing in a group setting, experience a one-to-many teaching dynamic that can be beneficial should they choose to attend college or outside courses later on.
Exposure to different teaching styles
Similarly, in a co-op students will have an opportunity to be taught by and interact with different parents and/or teachers, which can expose them to a diversity of teaching styles and approaches, some of whom may be surprisingly effective, and can help them develop further as a student and individual.
While homeschool co-ops certainly offer a number of advantages to families learning at home, they can also have some challenges that parents and students need to be aware of.
Typically Being volunteer- and parent-run, homeschool co-ops can require that parents and students be ready to make a significant time commitment.
Between attending meetings, voting on activities or leadership, teaching classes, escorting field trips and attending classes, events and activities, a co-op can represent a significant chunk of time – something that isn’t always in plentiful supply for busier homeschools.
Conflicts of Philosophies
A co-op is made up of different homeschooling families, and homeschooling families can have fairly varied, but strongly held, educational philosophies, beliefs and approaches.
Even among seemingly homogenous groups of homeschoolers, this can lead to sometimes upsetting disagreements over curricula, teaching methods and even matters of faith and lifestyle.
Homeschooling co-ops require families to work together and make decisions as a unit, which can mean that members have less personal autonomy and control over their student’s educational experience (outside of their own home learning, of course) and can mean compromising on certain issues…something they may have left traditional schooling to get away from.
While co-ops can be a great way for students to socialize with their peers, it also means that students may feel pressured to conform to certain peer expectations and some may struggle to fit in or have negative experiences that can lead to social stress and anxiety.
Homeschool co-ops aren’t free, and while they can offer significant savings at times, they do have costs associated with them, such as membership fees and various resource- and activity-related expenses, that some families can have a hard time fitting into a budget.
While the interpersonal relationships and accountability that can come from a co-op can be a definite plus for many families, the pressure of keeping up with home learning, co-op classes, co-op responsibilities and related activities can be a bit much for some, causing both parent and student to feel overworked and stressed out.
Homeschool Co-Ops And Learning Difficulties
Homeschool co-ops can be a great resource for parents of children with learning difficulties or delays.
Through co-ops, such parents can more easily find and get regular contact with other homeschooling parents with more experience in teaching students with different learning needs.
Further, a group of like-minded homeschoolers are far more likely to be sympathetic and try to provide them with the community and resources that can make homeschooling life a little easier.
Finally, and particularly if a co-op is centered around or has a few students with learning difficulties, co-ops can be a good way for parents to find (and afford) specialized classes and curricula, such as those with alternative learning approaches and focused skills development.
That said, it is important to keep in mind that not all homeschooling co-ops can or are willing to meet the needs of a student with learning challenges, as their offerings are dependent on the constituent families that make up the co-op, and this is certainly something that parents need to investigate before joining.
Homeschool Co-Ops And Special Needs Children
Co-ops can also be an interesting resource for families with special needs children to check out.
Certain co-ops may have a number of students with special needs and can provide opportunities for them to socialize and explore their skills and interests in a more inclusive and supportive community.
In addition, through the power of group purchasing, special needs-inclusive homeschool co-ops can gain access to resources (such as special equipment, professional services, therapies and educational materials) that individual families may have a hard time finding…or even knowing about.
Perhaps even more than that, homeschooling parents of special needs children can benefit from interacting with other parents who face similar challenges and experiences, which can help them feel less alone or isolated.
Homeschool Co-Ops And Gifted Education
Homeschool co-ops can also be particularly helpful for families with gifted or advanced students.
Depending on the co-op, and particularly those that cater to a wider range of grades, students can often try their hand at more challenging or advanced classes than they can at home, letting them take on more rigorous coursework and challenging projects that can really help them further hone their already sharp skills.
Homeschool co-ops may also offer more gifted students the ability to go on trips, engage in different activities and hobbies, get access to standardized testing or access specialized equipment and technology that might not be available at home, all of which can enhance their learning quite a bit.
Finally, students who are gifted leaders may benefit from the increased socialization opportunities that a co-op can offer, allowing them try their hand at different leadership roles that can help them build their confidence and sharpen their interpersonal skills even further.
Homeschool Co-Ops And Non-Traditional Approaches
While it may not seem that way at first, homeschool co-ops can actually have a lot to offer families who are following less traditional approaches to teaching, such as Charlotte Mason, Classical Learning, Eclectic and Unschooling.
This is because co-ops tend to attract like-minded families who can, as with any other homeschool family, can certainly benefit from the power of a community and their increased resources.
For example, co-ops following a Charlotte Mason approach can organize nature studies, conduct arts and crafts activity days, recommend curricula to one another and share resources, such as living books and other materials.
All of this can help take some of the load off of parents who might feel overwhelmed by the hands-on nature of the method.
With Classical Learning, like-minded co-ops can offer members classes in the Classic languages (Latin, Greek and so on), offer opportunities for formal debate to practice their rhetorical skills, offer mock trials, provide classes in logic and reasoning and so on.
While one might think that a co-op approach would be too limiting or restrictive for Unschoolers, co-op members can, in fact, benefit from sharing ideas and resources, as well as come together for field trips and other hands-on learning experiences.
In general, homeschooling co-ops can be an excellent resource for homeschooling families that are amenable to them.
While parents will always need to ensure that any homeschool co-op fits their needs and values, they can provide a good deal of personal and academic support, access to resources, socialization opportunities, activities and even significant cost savings that may not be available to families working on their own.
About the Author
Anne Miller is the editor of The Smarter Learning Guide and is a passionate advocate for education and educational technology. A mom of two, she majored in English Language and Literature and worked as a substitute teacher and tutor for several years. When not writing she continues to root for the Yankees and the Giants.