Friday, April 06, 2007

YEA ~ Young Explorers' Academy

Interview with Stephanie Stagner

I’ve been reading Stephanie’s blog for ages and have long been intrigued by the Young Explorer’s Academy, a co-op she started that has been growing by leaps and bounds. I asked Stephanie to share with us about starting YEA and perhaps provide some lessons and inspiration for others who are considering similar projects.

Tracy/ Tell us why you started YEA. What was your goal?

Stephanie: Last Summer, I was sitting at the computer browsing homeschooling websites. More and more, I found myself reading about co-ops and enrichment classes. I’m in a local homeschooling group, but they only offer park play days. That just didn’t feel like enough for my kids. They had been asking me for some time if they could take classes so I started looking into local co-ops. I was very disappointed in what I found. All of them were affiliated with churches and most required a signed "statement of faith" to participate. The lists of rules and regulations were endless and the classes were expensive. This wasn’t what I was envisioning. I wanted something open and free – more in sync with an unschooling lifestyle.

I began to think, "Why can’t I do this?" I could have a few families come to my house each week and we could play games and do "learning center" type activities. That night I posted to my local homeschool group and proposed the idea. I volunteered to set up and organize any endeavor (famous last words). When I woke up the next morning and checked my inbox, I was very surprised to have over 50 emails in support of my little idea.

I quickly realized that this was a bigger project than I could handle myself. There was no way I could host that many people at my house. I shared the problem with the group, and one of them offered the use of his church free of charge. It wasn’t a huge building, but it was fine for what we needed.

After several days of emailing and discussion, I set a date for a facilitator meeting and then crossed my fingers that I would have a good turn-out. Ten mothers showed up that first day. (They are still with us and I consider them crucial in the development and growth of YEA.) I opened up the meeting by telling everyone MY vision for the co-op. I clearly knew what I wanted; I just needed help putting it all together.

T: What did you want? How did you envision your co-op working?

S: The number one thing is that I didn’t want it to be like school. I wanted to offer educational and fun classes for the kids, but no child would be forced to sit in a class if they became bored or needed mom. I also really wanted to keep it affordable. All the classes were to be free, or nearly so. All the mothers needed to be involved as class facilitators or by helping out with the little ones. If you fulfilled that requirement, your kids could take as many classes as they wanted to. Crazy idea, right?

Apparently not. Everyone was very positive. We bounced around ideas, got a schedule put together, and discussed money issues. We decided to meet once a week, from 10:30-1:00 with a 30 minute lunch break.

T: Tell us how that time is structured.

S: We have either four 30-minute or two 60-minute class sessions. (We still use this schedule, but are probably going to change it a bit next year to better meet our needs.) We also scheduled a couple of parties. I posted to my local group again asking for facilitator volunteers. We ended up with 16 committed families (and gained a few more before the session was up).

Scheduling everyone’s classes was a nightmare the first year. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing, and I didn’t ask for help. This year, one of our moms offered to develop a website for us. We use that for scheduling now. It’s much easier.

T: So once you got started, did it all work out exactly as you had hoped?

S: The first few weeks of YEA were spent working out the bugs. Things come up that you never plan for. We quickly realized that we needed to delegate cleaning responsibilities. We also needed a few rules, like no running inside and no going outside without an adult. One of the moms made STOP signs that we hang on doors that kids aren’t supposed to open. By the end, though, all was working well.

We took a month off at Christmas to reevaluate and take a much needed break. One thing we realized was that we were quickly outgrowing our location and we needed to address that detail right away. Luckily, another member offered up her church. It is much larger and better set up to accommodate us. They didn’t ask for any money, but we decided to charge every family a $5 fee which we donated to the church.

Over the break, I went back to local group and solicited members again. The response was huge. I had to turn people away. We really want to keep our membership at around 30 families. That helps foster a sense of community and family. Plus, it’s all our facility can comfortably hold. We had such a huge response that we have now branched off from our original local group. We had to start our own Yahoo group along with the web page. We got a lot of fresh new class ideas and we have a field trip or party every month. I felt pretty confident starting up again after the break, but it’s inevitable that when you are working this closely with a large group of people, problems will arise.

T: Such as?

S: A few of our current members are unhappy with the lack of "serious" classes. Academics were never intended to be our main focus, but next year we are going to restructure our schedule to allow for more ongoing classes, themes, and we are adding preschool centers.

Another thing we have learned is that complete democracy, unfortunately, doesn’t work. Many issues turn into arguments fairly quickly. Because I got tired of always being the bad guy, we decided to form a committee. I’m on it as well as five others who share similar visions for the co-op. Everyone is welcome to state their ideas and opinions, but the committee has the final say. This is very necessary when you have such a diverse group of people. We aren’t just an unschooling co-op, everyone is welcome. And this means that we try to accommodate families with a wide range of values.

T: How about expense? Have you been able to maintain free classes in exchange for participation?

S: We are having some money issues. Mainly because the nature of many classes means supplies are sometimes needed. We were never clear when we started who was going to be responsible for buying specific supplies. This is going to be solved by charging everyone a small supply fee next year.

T: Give us an example of some classes YEA has offered.

S: There are so many, I don't know where to start! At the beginning of the session we have a brainstorm session where all of the moms offer class ideas. Then we poll the kids to see what they would like to take. We have some sort of a cooking class every week, many arts and crafts classes, and music and movement for the younger kids. We have also offered Spanish and are hoping to offer French next year. This session we have had a science experiment class each week, and some beginning DNA classes. As you can see it's very eclectic.

T: What has been most popular with the kids? Is there anything they ask for again?

S: The cooking classes are by far the most popular. The smaller kids also like playdough studio and any painting classes.

T: Tell us what happens when a child really has no interest in being involved in the classes. I’m thinking, in particular, of situations with siblings where one child might really enjoy the activities being offered, but a second child is less of a joiner. Have you had this experience and how do you accommodate the whole family?

S: A child is never required to participate. We have a "breakroom" area filled with art supplies, toys, and games. It's supervised at all times by at least two moms. That's where the kids go if they don't want to participate or if they decide halfway through a class that it isn't what they want to do. It's also where a child goes if his mom is facilitating a class and he has nothing scheduled. Many of the smaller kids spend their whole day in there.

T: Will you break for the summer?

S: This summer, instead of regular classes, we’re going to have “The Summer of Field Trip Fun.” Basically, each family that wants to participate is going to be responsible for planning a field trip for the group. I think we’re going to have a group camp out as well.

T: Looking back now at all the time and energy you have spent in getting YEA started, has it been worth it? Is it filling the need?

S: It is so worth it! This is the best thing I have done for my kids since I started homeschooling. They look forward to going to class each week so they can see their friends.

I would have to say that YEA is still evolving. We’ve got a ways to go before we get it just right, if we ever do. I (as well as several members) have big plans for the future of our little co-op. We’d really like to buy our own building, but that’s way in the future. For now we are happy to be giving our kids this opportunity to learn and play together.

T: I know there are many mothers in situations like ours who have considered starting something like this on their own. Any words of wisdom or encouragement?

S: Just do it!! It's a lot of work, but it is so fulfilling. On that note, don't try and do everything yourself. Find several other moms who share the same vision as you and work as a team. And on co-op day, put dinner in the crockpot because you will be too tired to cook when you get home..ha ha..

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