What does it take to start a cooperative preschool? To get the perspective of a founder and director of a co-op preschool, PCPI Advisor Natalie Hall asked Kate Hall McKenney about the beginning of New Bern Cooperative Preschool which opened in August 2015.
Kate, where did you get the idea to start a cooperative preschool?
: My family had a wonderful experience in 2013-14 at the
Arlington Unitarian Cooperative Preschool (AUCP)
in Virginia which I had attended as a child. My husband Mike and I wanted to have that same experience for our twin, four-year-old daughters and their two-year-old sister when we moved with the military to New Bern, North Carolina. AUCP, a PCPI member, has been incredibly helpful throughout the whole process.
Where is the school located and when did you open?
KM: We are in the education wing of the 300-year-old Episcopal Church right in the historic center of town. Although we are a separate entity, the church has been very supportive and sees the relationship as mutually beneficial. We had our grand opening at the end of August, 2015. We have classes for thirty 2-, 3-, and 4-year-olds, from 9:30-12:30, 2-5 days a week. Seventy percent are active military families. We are full!
How did you find other families to start the co-op?
: Once we decided to try to start a co-op, things moved very quickly. Mike and I invested some of our own money for start-up costs. In January 2015 we hired a person to help us create a website (
) and a logo - 3 bears because a bear is the mascot of the city of New Bern. We named the preschool, New Bern Cooperative Preschool (NBCP), and I wrote all the web content. In February we created a Facebook account and looked at all the pages of groups in New Bern, Cherry Point, and eastern North Carolina that could potentially have parenting groups. We posted on those pages inviting interested parents to come to a first meet-up at a local playground. We found a lot of amazing families who were interested and had so many organizational skills. We applied for 501(c)3 status listing 4 Board members so we could accept donations from families and friends. We wanted to have a scholarship fund so the preschool would be for the whole community.
We began to hold monthly meetings in March. By April a core group was formed and we elected a full board. Families made flyers and put up yard signs at intersections. We used Facebook to educate potential families about what a co-op is and provided links to articles about play-based learning and videos of other schools. We often used a Q & A format to share information.
How did you find teachers?
Interviews began in May. We were most fortunate to find parents who were also teachers and one teacher who was just retiring from the public school system. NBCP sent the 4's teacher to observe at AUCP as part of professional development.
What groups helped you?
KM: Arlington Unitarian Cooperative Preschool (AUCP) and their Director Susan Parker were very generous in providing samples of manuals, operating procedures, job descriptions, and classroom equipment and supplies. Parents, grandparents, and other schools have been so generous with money, equipment, and skills. It's been amazing!
Eastern Carolina University's Small Business and Technology Development Center assisted me in writing a business plan. Craven Community College Small Business Center was another source of support and networking. The New Bern Chamber of Commerce was very helpful in the search for a location and led me to Christ Episcopal Church, a very welcoming congregation who loved the idea of a cooperative preschool. The City of New Bern, including the Fire Department, zoning department and building inspectors, local news outlets, and the local state agency which supports early childhood programs, Smart Start, all helped. It was a true community effort.
Do you have a background in education?
KM: Yes, I had the experience of being the Director of the Child Development Center at the Marine Air Station in Yuma, Arizona. I have master's degree in education from the University of Virginia with additional administrative certification from George Washington University. I've taught 6
th grade through college. I learned so much about co-ops at AUCP.
What were the two hardest parts of starting the co-op?
KM: Finding a location and finding teachers. Also, no one was familiar with the cooperative model, and explaining play-based learning compared to the more familiar academic model was a challenge. It was helpful to be associated with AUCP and PCPI to show that there are many successful co-ops and that NBCP would be joining a larger, established preschool community. We got lots of publicity on TV and the local newspaper in the small city of New Bern. "Word of mouth" was very important in helping families and teachers "find a good fit".
What has been the most rewarding part of the starting a co-op?
KM: We found there was a desire in the community for an alternative to the traditional preschools and we met that need for other families, as well as ours. The church and the Chamber of Commerce love the school because it brings young families downtown and more educational choices to New Bern. I am also especially proud of the community the school is providing for active duty military families. Multiple students have deployed parents at any one time, and our school has become a great source of support for all families, but especially those. Also, parents have found the opportunity to use their many talents in running the school, which is not always possible in a small city.