A different way to homeschool is beginning to catch on in the state.
Homeschool cooperatives have become an option for some parents looking for a more cost-effective alternative to private schooling.
"The co-op kind of helps do all that behind-the-scenes work and provides the parents with the assignments and the lesson plans and all of that instead of the parent having to figure it out on their own," said Sara Beth Schneider, a teacher through the Excelsior Homeschool Cooperative, based in Vestavia Hills.
She started teaching sixth-grade writing three years ago.
Schneider's parents helped start the cooperative with another family in 2004. She said it grew very quickly.
In a homeschool cooperative, parents of multiple children get together and pay a teacher directly instead of enrolling their child in public or private school. The teacher instructs students like a regular class, but the parents are more involved in their education.
Accordingly to the Home School Legal Defense Association, only 3% of students were homeschooled in the United States between 2007 and 2019. In the 2020 to 2021 school year, 11% of households had at least one child homeschooled. Some 4% of households were homeschooled only.
Catherine Murphy and her husband enrolled their children in almost every kind of school. They've been schooled publicly and privately, and they've been homeschooled. They first tried homeschooling in 2019 when they moved into a rural area. Poor internet connection impaired their children's learning ability as schools went virtual during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Murphy tried schooling her children herself but soon found that her children lacked a sense of community, and she felt overwhelmed with the responsibility of teaching her kids without having any teaching experience.
"We missed just being around people," Murphy said.
Murphy and her husband decided to enroll two of their children in Excelsior.
"We fell in love with it right away just because there was more freedom with our schedule," Murphy said. "We could do things by our schedule."
Murphy's children attend classes two days a week. On the other days, they work on lessons provided by the co-op. She said she enjoys that the lesson plans are laid out for her, and her children enjoy the social interaction with other kids.
Despite being publicly educated and attending a public university to become a public school teacher, Jill Waters chose to homeschool her children after a friend encouraged her to think and pray about it.
Waters said she wanted her children to have a classical education and realized she would need some help to provide that. That same friend recommended Excelsior, where her children now attend.
Waters said she likes that she gets to participate in a covenant community with other families who have similar values.
How co-ops work
Co-ops differ from typical homeschooling in that the parents are not directly responsible for lesson plans and classroom assignments. Other homeschooling methods might involve the parents teaching their children directly or using an online homeschool curriculum.
However, co-ops differ from private schools in that the parents are still actively engaged with all the work along the way.
Schneider said that at Excelsior, parents pay each teacher individually. If a teacher has 20 different students, they receive 20 different checks. The more classes a teacher teaches, and the more students in each class, the more they get paid. Teachers are also responsible for their own taxes.
According to Schneider, the average number of students in a class through Excelsior is around twelve. They meet at a local church in Vestavia.
The role of parents
Schneider said at the co-op, the teacher's role in the classroom is to educate the students, but parents are expected to be more engaged than is required in a public school setting.
"Parents sign a covenant before they join that they agree to a certain way of educating their students," Schneider said. "[M]y role is to essentially just form the lesson plans and to kind of just guide along the way. I teach in the classroom, but then at home, the parents are really doing the work and are really engaged with their kids."
Parents can choose co-ops that hold similar values to them.
"We've chosen to go with a co-op who has a Christian worldview, so that's important to us, but they still are not robots," Murphy said. "They all think for themselves. That's been a huge bonus."
"Even if there are books that maybe have certain themes that wouldn't be aligned with our worldview, the parent is reading it with their child, so they can have this conversation and talk it through with them [through] a Biblical lens," Schneider said.
Advantages to teaching for a co-op
Schneider said teachers working through a co-op likely are paid significantly less than teachers in public schools. However, co-op teachers have more control over their schedules. She said many like teaching in a co-op setting often because it allows them more time with their own children.
Schneider said she even has a friend who is teaching at Excelsior but isn't planning on homeschooling her own kids.
"It really frees up your time," Schneider said.
Schneider said teachers also choose to teach at co-ops because the students are typically more engaged and have higher expectations.
"The goal is for these students to be challenged and engaged, so I think that's different than a lot of public school settings," Schneider said.
Costs of co-ops
Schneider said homeschooling may not always be less expensive than sending a child to a private school.
"Homeschooling is not necessarily inexpensive in the co-op format because you are still paying the teachers," Schneider said, in addition to the cost of necessary books and curriculum.
On the other hand, Murphy and Waters agreed that homeschooling through a co-op was cheaper than private schooling in their experience.
Waters said co-oping costs her around $3,000 per child per year, whereas the private school her two older children attend costs around $6,000.
Popularity of co-ops
Schneider said co-ops have become a more accepted form of educating children along with homeschooling in general. She said homeschooled children today face less stigma from peers compared to when she was a child.
Colleges are also more accepting of homeschooled applicants than they have been in the past.
"When I was going off to college, colleges and universities were just starting to recognize [that] homeschool students have a skill set that is really attractive," Schneider said. "I would say now that's pretty standard across the board."
Murphy said people she knows through the co-op can help her make sure her children are prepared for college. She said she had received quality instruction on what's required of her children to graduate on time and connections with dual enrollment opportunities.
Homeschool students are now sometimes allowed to participate in sports and other activities through the public school for which they are zoned. Murphy said her children participate in club sports, like swimming.
"There are lots of different ways you can be connected with other kids," Schneider said. "Certainly, a co-op helps with that."
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