HS #283 How We Started Our Homeschool Co-op with Jessica Smartt
Links and Resources:
Jessica Smartt is a mother, former English teacher, and homeschooling mom of three residing in sunny North Carolina. Jessica is the blogger behind “Smartter” Each Day and the author of Memory-Making Mom and Let Them Be Kids.
https://jamiebuckland.net: Classical Program Consultant
https://homeschoolcpa.com: Carol Topp, homeschooling finance and legal questions
Jessica Smatt's Books:
HS EP 283
Hello and welcome back to another installment of the Homeschool Solutions Show. My name is Wendy Speake, and I am one of the many hosts we have here on the podcast. Each week you'll hear from one of us inviting one of our friends to join for a conversation about this busy blessed season as we educate our children at home.
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Hi everybody, this is Jessica Smartt. I'm one of the hosts of the Homeschool Solutions podcast. I'm so happy to be here with you today. You can find me online on Instagram. I'm Jessica.Smartt. Smartt has two Ts. And online I'm at smarttereachday.com and Smartter also has two Ts. And you can check out my books, Memory Making Mom, Building Traditions that Breathe Life into Your Home, and Let Them be Kids, Adventure, Innocence, Boredom, and Other Gifts Kids Need.
And I'm excited to be here with you today talking about how we started our own homeschool community. This is the time of the year as I record this in February that a lot of people may be thinking about what they're doing in the coming year. And maybe you've toyed around with the idea of forming a community but felt overwhelmed and not sure where to start. I'm by no means an expert on forming homeschool co-ops, but we've had a wonderful experience and learned a lot. And so, this is more of a, our story than a tutorial exactly, but I am going to share some takeaways throughout that I would highly advise and also some resources that I found really invaluable as we went about doing this.
So, a little bit about me. I live in North Carolina. I homeschool and my two sisters also homeschool. All of our kids are around the same age. And we were members of a Classical Conversations community in our area. And I really had a wonderful experience there. I made a lot of wonderful friends. I felt like my kids learned a lot and we really enjoyed the sense of community that it gave us. But for a number of reasons, I sort of saw the writing on the wall and felt that this would not be a good option for our family in the coming year. And so around Christmas of one year, I realized that I probably should start doing some research for another option.
And the way I began is by just starting some conversations by homeschool friends that I felt were like-minded to me and I think that's a really important concept because I have a lot of homeschool friends. But the ones that I initially began talking to were the ones that I knew had a shared vision, as in, homeschooled the same way that we do. Because there's so many different kinds of homeschooling. And I love, you know, I have a lot of friends who do different things and we're great friends and we enjoy hanging out, but I knew that it would require more than that. Oh, you homeschool. I homeschool. We like each other. Let's start a co-op. I kind of had an instinctive gut feeling that that may not be the best way to start it.
So, there were just a couple people that kind of popped into my mind that I knew did homeschooling very similar to us and then, second key piece that were really hard working because I knew that it would take a lot of work to start something. And so, I had my sisters on board and then two friends came to mind that I just respected. They just are workhorses and so I knew they would be good to have on our team and they didn't actually know each other. So, in the beginning it was a group. So, we had a core group in the beginning of six families and we got together a couple of times through Zoom a couple times. In person once I think or twice. And we just kind of talked through our visions for homeschooling and our visions for community. Things that we had liked in former communities or that we would like to improve. And honestly from that one of the families ended up stepping down and not continuing with us. And I think you have to realize that that may happen, you know, as you start talking. But the other five were kind of our core families. And we all kind of just had a hunch that it was worth trying and we were really open-handed about it as we went along. Because, you know, you're still getting to know each other. And you're also still getting to nail out like what the community would really look like.
So, there wasn't a lot of pressure. It wasn't like an immediate sign at the dotted line, but we just kind of slowly kept going forward. And so, within those five families we started putting together some, just like putting together some things in writing that just we wanted to define our group. And I'm going to preface this by saying the two friends that I had signed on with me are the most organized and, I don't know, they're highly visionaries and had a very clear picture of what they wanted and put together so many documents. And so, when I read this list, you may think that's not really my cup of tea, or I couldn't ever pull that together. I think we probably went above and beyond in putting together what was needed, but they really enjoyed that. They were great at it and it has served us well. But I don't think it's essential.
But here are some of the things that we put together. And we kind of just like divided this up.
We spread up into teams, just groups of people who were interested and kind of one person would just pull together some thoughts about it and then we kind of revised it. So, we put together our statement of faith and honestly, we copied that from another school handbook. It's the Apostle's Creed, and then it also highlights some other things. And then we put together a code of conduct. How we want our community to function. We even laid out how we would like conflict to be dealt with if there was a conflict within the group, and then we set out a discipline policy.
And what I'll say about those things, I think it's good that we had it. I think, honestly, the process of putting it together was most helpful because it helped us all realize we were all on the same page. We have accessed those things like zero times as a group. And I think more important has been really vetting and getting families that we feel like are in a healthy place and in a good match. And when I say healthy place I mean, you know, interact and communicate well and just mesh with the group well. So, I think that's actually more important than having all of these things in place for the group. But it was good to kind of lay it all out and know that we're all on the same page.
And then we put together three values for our group. So, we decided I don't know if you're familiar with the Schole word. Scholé Sisters is a great podcast that you can check out, and they've kind of revived that word within a lot of homeschool families. Scholé(pronounced: skoh-lay) is a word that describes restful learning and so the idea is a life-giving place of learning both within the classroom and then also for the Mom. And we value that concept of, well how we implemented it in our group is that every six weeks we have what's called a Scholé day. And we wanted to kind of do something that was a fun different way of learning. And I'll tell you a little bit about that, but one of our values was that learning would be enjoyable and lifegiving and so that word Scholé, and restful kind of was a value to us.
And then we wanted something that was largely classical in nature and then also Christian. So those were our three values. And then we also had a lot of other, we didn't use the word values. There was something else and I can't remember now what we called it. But it was just another group of things that were important to us. Things like reading. We valued reading. The involvement of the father in our group, and in the homeschool family, and that looks different ways. But we just wanted to make a priority to have the dads more involved, and not just be like we never met the dad's or saw them.
We also valued service. There was kind of a long list of just different things that were all important to us, and again, that just kind of helps to like nail down what kind of a group we were looking on. So, one of the decisions we made early on that I think has been awesome, is that we decided instead of having one director to have three. So, it kind of just became obvious out of those five of us that there were three of us that were just, you know, super excited about coming up with all these documents and just kind of liked the idea of running it. So, I am one and then I have two friends and we are codirectors altogether and that has been amazing because it's kind of worked out nicely that one of us is very administratively gifted and so she'll put out the emails. She largely had cut the budget. Everything, she is a spreadsheet for everything. One, but my other friend is really gifted with curriculum and she also, so she's helped to put together kind of a lot of the, some of our curriculum that we have. And there's other things that she also kind of just fills in the niche. And then I like being the day of director. Then again, like there's a million other jobs that we delegate, but just those are just a couple of ways that it kind of has fleshed out.
And what's been awesome is that if we, just the decision process, it does not feel overwhelming. If one of us is having a super stressful, you know, season or week, it doesn't incapacitate you that you're in charge because you can kind of step back for a second. And it's also been great when you know there have been times where we have to make a decision. It's like a 2 to 1 kind of thing, but it's nice to know that, like the decisions aren't just one person. And you know, if one person has an outstanding opinion, you know they'll defer to the other two, and so it's worked really well. I really recommend that. But you know, all three of us are willing to put in the work. You certainly would want to make sure that you had, you know, directors that were all willing to be involved equally.
So, we ended up by the time it was all said and done, having about 25 kids from eight families. And we did end up having a nursery that we all kind of pay into. We decided not to pay our teachers but to just have everyone volunteer in different roles. And I definitely think the directors and some of the core families or like lead teachers do bear a little bit of a heavier load. But hopefully as our, you know, as we get further into it, that will kind of equal out and everybody will absorb different roles. But generally, it's, we have like a small fee that you pay and that goes to just supplies. So, it's not a ‘for profit’.
And when we came up with our schedule, I'll just kind of talk through what our day looks like. It has been fantastic. One of the things I was excited about was trying to put a little bit more variety in our day. I did, I do like the CC (Classical Conversation) memory, but we wanted to just be able to add some more things that we loved that we had, you know, the authority to add. And so, it's been really fun to kind of include different things.
Our day starts with a morning meeting and it's kind of just a glorified group morning time. We sing a hymn. We have like a little, kind of like a liturgy book that one of the moms put together. And so, we have a hymn we're learning every quarter. We have a prayer. We're going through and memorizing a book of the Bible altogether. And I come up with motions for a verse every week. So slowly, we're doing Romans twelve. And what we also do a family presentation in the morning. And we will often have a guest speaker come in and maybe talk about a different career and I'll interview them.
So that's kind of our morning meeting time. And then we have three rotations going in the morning. So, our co-op goes now up to sixth grade and next year will be adding seventh grade. So, we have a nursery and then everyone else is doing the same thing, just with the different age group they're going through. So, in a different order. So, the three stations we have, we have a history class, and we all are kind of following the, if you're familiar with the CC cycles, we're kind of modeling our, we're still sort of following that outline of the CC cycles. So, for history we're going through weekly topics and it's a very hands-on. My Co-director has done an amazing job of just implementing, you know, sometimes they're listening to music. Sometimes they'll do an art project. It's really hands-on. It's not like sitting and listening to a lecture. So, there's some sort of a history where they're engaging with a certain time period, and they're following it through the year.
And then there's, secondly, a science rotation, and also loosely following kind of the CC outline. And it's usually experiment-based, which was something we really really wanted to do because some moms like me aren't great at doing that at home. So, it's been awesome, and I think a really great use of time. One thing we really just kept thinking about as we were planning is what are the things that are best done in a group. And if it was best done at home, we didn't want to waste time as a community to do that. But things that are really hands-on and we can just bulk order a whole bunch of supplies. That's been a really good use of time.
So, we also wanted to have our kids continue to do presentations, which is a CC idea cause I think public speaking is so good. So, we kind of have setup, we added topics throughout the year and to give them some public speaking experience, so they do that. And then we also have a memory work binder that we're kind of working through. So, there's different facts that they're all doing each week.
So those are the three. So, we've got like the littles, the middles, and the bigs, and they're just kind of rotating around those three. And for our, it's actually worked really well to have the teachers stay in the same classroom and the students just switch because some of it is really, there's a lot of, you know, missing different pieces and materials, so it's been nice to kind of have a home base for the teachers.
So, we do that. And then we have lunch and a really long recess because that's another thing we really were wanting, you know, is that community time. And so, we have lunch and then about an hour to play. And then we really try to do some intentional conversation with the mom. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn't, but kind of have like a question, or, you know, share a certain resource. And we always wanted to have somebody be in charge of recess, so that's one of your rotating jobs is that two moms will be the recess, you know, monitors, which kind of frees up some of the other moms too. That's their week off. They can chat-chat and relax.
So, in the afternoon then, we still have our three groups. We've got our littles, our middles, and our oldest. And the littlest ones, I love this aspect because this was not something that we had in our former community, but it's just a preschool. It's the homegrown preschooler. Most of the activities are from that amazing book, which I'll link, and so the little ones are doing something that's hands-on. You know they're finger painting, they're working with water beads, they're doing some sort of a craft, and then they bring in a towel and a stuffed animal and have a reading time, you know, a picture book or learn some songs or poems. And it's just really beautiful.
So that's what the littles are doing. And then the middles, which is about grades three, four, are doing a IEW very early beginner intro to IEW, which is Institute for Excellence in Writing. So, they are slowly learning how to make keywords and form a paragraph. And that lesson is interactive, and engaging and it's writing, but they don't have any homework, so it's just kind of the very beginning level of that. And then they also have a chunk where they're reading a novel and they can color or do a word search while they're just listening to a novel to just kind of let them, you know, have some decompressing time.
And then I've got the five, six, the fifth and sixth graders, for a, we use the IEW writing curriculum.
And then we also are reading a novel, and both of those things do require some outside work, so that's about the only thing in the curriculum, I mean, in the co-op that parent’s kind of have to do outside in order to keep up. For the rest of it, you could kind of do whatever curriculum you have.
So, that's what our day looks like and then as I said, we have loved adding in some special days. We did a maker’s market that was just the cutest thing ever. We did a Christmas celebration. We're going to do a talent show. We do the career interviews that I mentioned. A field day. We're gonna do grandparent's day. We've done bonfire and worship night, Mom’s nights. We just have so many ideas for that and that's the fun stuff, you know.
So that's a little bit about what our year has looked like and what our group looks like. I think just to kind of tie, tie it all up with some application points. You know I loved going to CC and seeing so many different families. And so, when we first started I thought, well we have to have a big group because bigger is better. And I felt a little disappointed that it may, it was gonna be small. And what I've realized is that as I said, we have eight families and it has just been so special. I think you could even do it with less, honestly. It's been a really great number and I think the quality of families is definitely way more important than the number. Because we have a group that seems to mesh well and you know there are definitely, anytime you have a group of people, there's things you have to work out, but I am so glad that we erred on the small side and I've heard as I've kind of done research and listened to people, I've heard a lot of people say that as they grew, or if they started really big, there was often problems because you just couldn't sustain the vision and implementing that shared philosophy with that many people. Or if the group just didn't even know what they were about to begin with, there was nothing that really tied them all together. And just quite simply, more kids is more chaos and so I remember some of the moms saying that I talked to prior to this saying when their group grew, they actually looked back fondly on those smaller days.
So that would be my encouragement. I have a friend who just meets with two other families in a home, and it has been the most amazing thing for them. They meet every other Friday and one another's, or I think they take turns. Or maybe it's at the same home. And it's just as a group of three families and it's been really amazing for them. So that was one surprising lesson that I learned. And I sort of did mention this, but I think the process of vetting families, in the beginning, we were committed to only including families that we directly knew, and that was a good move, I think. And we may continue to do that versus like my initial thought was like spreading it on Facebook, you know, at the beginning and kind of getting this massive slew of applications. But I think it was smaller to know what we were getting. And we also did put together a pretty lengthy application where we were able to get a feel for what their homeschool day looked like, if they had, we just tried to ask a lot of questions. We knew that it would take a lot of work to run the co-op, and so we figured that if there was a long application and you weren't interested in following, filling that application, then you probably wouldn't be interested in doing a lot of work for the co-op. So, we kind of intentionally made a long application. And yeah, it just kind of had you describe your day and your children's needs. And I will say that you know there were a couple we filled out and realize like this may, they may have a different vision than we do. So, it was definitely helpful to have that official application.
So, there were a lot of resources that were really helpful. Carol Topp, T-O-P-P, and I'll link in the show notes, has a lot of resources on the business side for running your coop. And she just has, she has a podcast and also a lot of articles that just address everything from taxes to insurance. Kind of everything on that side. And there were also several Facebook groups that were super helpful because whatever your question was, someone else has probably gone through that or had that question and I'll link a couple of my Facebook, my favorite Facebook groups on there.
And then the final one that I absolutely totally endorse, is Jamie Buckland's Creating Community group. She is a classical homeschool group consultant and she has a course. It goes through the aspects of business, administration, and curriculum and one of the coolest takeaways from that is that she gives you all of these templates. Here's a letter to present to the church where you would like to meet. Here's a letter to give your families. Here's a sample calendar. I mean, she just has it all planned and you get access to those through the course. So that is a paid course, but I would definitely recommend it if you're growing your group or sincerely wanting to start.
So, and lastly, if you have any questions, this has just been such a fun process, but feel free to send me a DM on Instagram. Again, I'm Jessica.Smartt with two Ts, and just a reminder to pick up my books, if you haven't. Let Them Be Kids and Memory Making Mom. Both of those are great books to read in the spring as you're approaching the summer, which is a great time to make memories and let them be kids.
So, I've enjoyed chatting with you all today and again feel free to reach out if you have any questions about our co-op or thoughts. I'd love to hear them. Have a blessed day.
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