"Exploring Authentic Connection in a Cooperative Learning Community"
Mary Nelson Executive Director Denver Cooperative Preschool
A parent and educator discuss connection in the DCP community.
On a sunny Saturday morning in May, a group of parents, educators, board members, and friends gather around a dining room table. They have come together to discuss authentic connection within the cooperative learning community they share, reviewing data gathered through a community-based action research project over the last five months. These individuals are invested in telling their stories, hearing the experiences of others, and making meaning of how connection has evolved in one early childhood community over nearly sixty years.
The Denver Cooperative Preschool was founded in 1960 as the Montview Community School, guided by a belief in community and welcoming all families. Founding mother Bea Romer believed that “as new parents, we are often anxious about how to be the best parents we can be, and friendships developed with other new parents can be life-saving. They create special bonds that last forever."
"As new parents, we are often anxious about how to be the best parents we can be, and friendships developed with other new parents can be life-saving. They create special bonds that last forever." - Bea Romer, founding mother
A child paints her father's face during DCP's Annual Art Show
In speaking with parents, educators, and children in the community nearly sixty years later, the founding mothers’ original vision is alive and well. Families participating in the school sign a “cooperative agreement,” committing to helping days in the classroom, committee work that supports program operations, and a work day during the year where they will join other parents and caregivers to clean materials and make minor repairs to equipment. In turn families and educators develop deep connection with one another through shared time spent in the classroom and community events, forming friendships that often last beyond their years at DCP. Parents and caregivers also report increased confidence and support in their parenting journey. One father shared, “I think in this phase of life, my metrics of success as a parent would be my children feeling safe and comfortable and courageous; the ability to be courageous because they don’t have to worry if they have the full support of me as a parent and their community at large. I think having a sense of what’s happening each day, being present as a parent helper, and being a consistent presence in their school is reinforcing the decision we made as a family to be involved.”
"I think in this phase of life, my metrics of success as a parent would be my children feeling safe and comfortable and courageous; the ability to be courageous because they don't have to worry if they have the full support of me as a parent and their community at large." - Current Parent
While this early childhood community offers fraternity, support, and resources for young families during a particularly vulnerable and joyful phase of life, those in the community express concern for how the cooperative might evolve to survive a changing landscape for those raising children in 2019. Denver’s population has grown nearly twenty percent since 2010 (Murray, 2019), a statistic that is reflected in the long wait lists of families wishing to enroll in the school. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics, prices in Denver were 51.25% higher in 2018 versus 2000 (“Economy at a glance: Denver-Aurora-Broomfield, CO,” n.d.). Many families in the Denver metro area are unable to survive on a single-income, and the requirements of the cooperative can be difficult to maintain for families with both parents or caregivers working outside the home.
Currently, the cooperative requires that a child’s parent or legal guardian fulfill all aspects of the cooperative agreement, an arrangement that not only precludes participation for many families, but may eliminate other adults who play a central role in children’s lives (nannies, extended family, and close friends). As one parent shared, “As a two parent working family, we would benefit from the chance to share DCP with our whole village of support.” Our current definitions of connection are not originating from the current parent body, but rather the parents who founded the school nearly sixty years ago.
"As a two parent working family, we would benefit from the chance to share DCP with our whole village of support." - Current Parent
A parent participates in her committee role organizing DCP's library while her two young children look on.
Those in the community question how the definition of the cooperative might expand to increase access and possibility for today’s families while also maintaining the opportunity for genuine connection that has been a hallmark of the cooperative for decades. Many families who do elect to participate in the cooperative describe sacrificing time away from other commitments to meet cooperative obligations. Some parents report feelings of guilt or shame when they feel they are not doing enough to contribute to the community, an emotion that runs contrary to the supportive environment the cooperative is trying to create.
A child's drawing of his family's bed.
As my own cooperative community bravely looks inward to redefine authentic connection for the next sixty years, my research interest in how family engagement is experienced in early childhood settings has grown. Engaging with the voices of individuals in my community has changed my understanding of the role of a leader and taught me the profound value of inviting open conversations through the action research process. The authentic insight gained through dialogue with children, families, and educators gave me new perspective on how these individuals experience our community. As professionals, we have a responsibility to create environments that are supportive for children and the adults who care for them. Invitations for families to spend time in their child’s learning community, both formally and informally, lead to relationship, authentic connection, and vulnerability. However these invitations must not place additional stress and demand on family resources that may already feel incredibly limited, but rather beautifully reflect what is most needed by the child, their family, and their village of support.
References Economy at a glance: Denver-Aurora-Broomfield, CO (n.d.) Retrieved from https://www.bls.gov/eag/eag.co_denver_msa.htm
Murray, J. (2019, April 18). Denver’s population has grown by nearly 20 percent since 2010 - and it’s picking up again. The Denver Post. Retrieved from https://www.denverpost.com/