the children of new york

DIY Pre-K Co-ops Are a Whole Thing

Probably not immunized. Photo: David Clark/iStockphoto

New York City preschool admissions is famously competitive — not just for tony private schools, but for desirable public programs as well. What to do if you can’t get your kid into one of the few spots at a good public school, and you don’t want to pay through the teeth for a less-than-wonderful private pre-K program? Well, if you are a certain kind of brownstone Brooklyn parent, like Soni Sangha, you take matters into your own hands, find some other like-minded upper-middle-class-but-not-stinking-rich parents whose children were also rejected, and you form an illegal preschool cooperative. How does one go about doing that?

First, there is the matter of finding the right classmates, of course. No better way to do that than to start at the very beginning, really.

On a sunny day, we sat on blankets as our children hunted for rocks and sticks under the shade of some trees. We got acquainted over intimate details such as where we gave birth — a number of the other women had delivered in their living rooms. I was embarrassed to admit that I had had a Caesarean section in a hospital while high on an epidural.

How’d she recover from that blunder? But soon, she discovered a commonality. “As different as I thought we were, we all said our children had basically never left our sides. We did not know how they would react to school. ” And why risk that?

 But there were still a few hurdles.

Even if we could wade through the bureaucracy, we would never get a permit for our current co-op. Not all the children are immunized as the health department requires. We could not find a space to rent that had the required separate bathrooms for children and adults, or the two exits excluding fire escapes, for the children to get out to a sidewalk. We would have to hire an architect, file plans with the Department of Buildings and redo the space.

Instead of dealing with all that, they hired a teacher and took turns hosting the school in their homes. “Twice a week for three hours, the children sang songs, made sculpture with homemade play dough and, when they had trouble expressing themselves, used a box that had faces with different emotions pasted on each side to help articulate things like ‘I feel frustrated.’” If only the parents had such tools for communication at their disposal. Instead, the utopian experiment nearly ended in a fight over whether to hire an additional aide for a new child, who seemed to need extra help. The original group wasn’t sure it was worth it.

Our broad existential questions spawned a maelstrom of 53 e-mails over four days that laid bare personal, cultural and socioeconomic biases and that pitted us against one another. E-mails previously has sign-offs like “love to all”; now they had words like “breach of ethics” and “priorities.” Some members supported the structure we had set up, in which parents acted as administrators while the teacher oversaw day-to-day operations. Other members felt that our setup had gone astray and that a teacher requiring something of one family gave her more weight in the co-op than the family had.

Two families withdrew from the school over what boiled down to a difference in the way we defined the word “co-operative.”

(Huge topic in South Brooklyn, really.) The year ended on a sour note. But the next year, regular school options weren’t any more available to the group, and so they grumpily restarted again. And yet, magically, the experiment worked better this time. So much so that when her son got into a public school, she declined the spot, though it meant passing up all-but-guaranteed admission into the school’s kindergarten.

The day after we declined the seat, I went to pick up my son from the co-op. On our way home, we passed the public school and I told my son, “One day, you might go to school here.” He responded by stopping in his tracks long enough to stomp his feet and emphatically yell, “No!”

He did not want to leave his friends, he told me, and he did not want to leave his teacher. I was thrilled by how positive he was about the experience and felt drunk on my first clear view of our school’s success.

Nothing says success like a public tantrum and attachment issues. 

DIY Pre-K Co-ops Are a Whole Thing