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Parents fear proposed regulations could jeopardize co-op preschools in Virginia

Peter Osten, 3, puts away sandbox toys in their assigned bins following playtime at Annandale Cooperative Preschool in Annandale, Va.
Peter Osten, 3, puts away sandbox toys in their assigned bins following playtime at Annandale Cooperative Preschool in Annandale, Va. (Dayna Smith/For The Washington Post)
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Richard Pripeton watched as his son sat in a class of 3-year-olds, scanning the letters of the alphabet before delighting at the sight of “N” — the first letter in the boy’s name.

The youngster jumped up and down and couldn’t stop smiling the first time he recognized his “special letter,” the boy’s father recalled.

It’s a moment Pripeton would have missed if he hadn’t been in his son’s classroom at the Annandale Cooperative Preschool two years ago. It’s the type of up-close experience parents say they could lose if proposed regulations to bolster child-care center training are applied to parents and other relatives who volunteer at cooperative preschools.

Parents are directly involved in the school experience — in administration and upkeep and by volunteering as class assistants and teachers. Their efforts lower the cost of running the schools and give parents a front-row glimpse of their child’s education.

“Thirty years from now, I’m going to remember this school and remember getting to see him grow and change here,” Pripeton said one July morning as his son scampered around with other children on the playground.

Parents, teachers and school directors say the additional hours would prove onerous for parents, many of whom work full-time jobs and consider cooperative preschools an affordable option for early-childhood education. They say requirements under consideration by the Virginia Department of Social Services could inflate tuition costs, change the dynamic of cooperative preschools and possibly force some to close.

A spokeswoman for the agency said the proposed updates were drawn to align standards in the state with federal requirements for providers receiving money from the Child Care and Development Block Grant Act of 2014.

“Amending the existing regulations to reflect federal health and safety standards will provide additional protections of the health, safety, and welfare of children in care,” the spokeswoman, Cletisha Lovelace, said in an email.

But cooperative preschools don’t receive block grant money, said Nancy Renner, incoming president of the Virginia Cooperative Preschool Council. Lovelace did not respond immediately to a request for comment about Renner’s assertion.

If approved, Renner estimated, the updated requirements could mean some 30 hours of training for school staff, a designation that would include parents who assist teachers at cooperative schools where parents are counted in the school’s staff-to-children ratio.

It’s unclear when the requirements, which must be adopted by the social service agency, would go into effect.

The international organization that represents cooperative preschools said Virginia is the only state it knows of that is trying to align training requirements with the federal block grant rules.

“It might well be the most regulated or most restrictive regulations, as far as we know. Other states have not reported any problems,” said Natalie Hall, an adviser to Parent Cooperative Preschools International and a past president.

Parents and school directors say the training commitment would be disproportionate to the amount of time parents spend helping in classrooms, which administrators said equals about three to six hours a month.

Working families would be hard-pressed to find time to complete the training, said Marie Sloane, director of education at the Annandale school.

Without enough parents, the school would have to hire four assistant teachers for part-time slots that Sloane said are already difficult to fill — nearly doubling her six-teacher staff and probably increasing tuition. Cooperative preschools, she said, generally cost less than comparable schools because of parental participation. Monthly tuition at the Annandale Cooperative Preschool ranges from $233 to $416.

She and other school directors have urged the Virginia Department of Social Services to set less time-consuming requirements.

Under existing guidelines, parents must undergo four hours of training. The proposed rules call for parents to complete at least 20 hours of annual training, in addition to orientation training that school administrators say could take upward of 10 hours.

“The difference between four hours and 30-plus is so huge,” Sloane said. “We’re looking for something that respects the way we do things and isn’t going to break what’s not broken.”

At the Annandale school, parents serve as classroom assistants about once a month. They’re responsible for mostly low-profile duties such as bringing snacks and sweeping floors. Parents also manage administrative responsibilities and tend the school grounds.

Lovelace, the social service agency spokeswoman, said the format of training programs would be flexible, including learning online or in conference calls. Training would cover topics such as health, safety and child development.

Andrew Pennock, a parent of children at Chancellor Street Preschool Co-operative in Charlottesville, said he and his wife would not be able to take time off work to fulfill the proposed training hours.

Pennock, an assistant professor of public policy at the University of Virginia, said the cooperative school model appealed to him because it provides a view into his children’s school experience.

“We really wanted to be a part of our kids’ educations, and we wanted to know them and know their teachers,” he said.

The state has 35 to 40 cooperative preschools, with many in Northern Virginia. They’ve existed in the state for at least 70 years, said Renner, the incoming president of the Virginia Cooperative Preschool Council.

Renner said that although parents aren’t held to the same training requirements as professional staff, they undergo background checks and must meet health requirements, including tuberculosis testing.

The first cooperative nursery school was established in 1916 by faculty wives at the University of Chicago, according to Parent Cooperative Preschools International.

The oldest continually operating cooperative preschool was founded in Berkeley, Calif., in 1927, according to the nonprofit representing families and teachers at cooperative preschools. Co-op schools blossomed across the United States, including in Michigan, Oregon, Maryland and New Jersey. They operate in Canada, too.

In Virginia, higher tuition costs could price some children out of preschool, parents said.

Pripeton, who is co-president of the Annandale Cooperative Preschool, said the co-op was his son’s “only chance for a preschool program.” Pripeton said he’s witnessed his son, Nikolas, evolve into an imaginative playmate alongside his school friends.