The Kids’ Co-op does a lot of things differently, in the classroom and beyond

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<p>Blocks!</p>

Class is in session at the small school on a country stretch of North Decatur Boulevard. The kindergartners start their second day of class with some very animated sign language, slashing the air with pointer fingers like six junior Zorros taking on the bad guys. These students don’t learn the letter Z by crouching over a desk.

Kids’ Co-op has classrooms for children as young as 2, but the kindergartners are the only ones who have started school. They follow the same schedule as the Clark County School District, and have the same basic educational goals. But that’s where the similarities end.

The co-op celebrated its 30th anniversary this year, but parents at the school still consider it to be a well-kept secret, a low-cost, high-quality school that places a premium on play and parental involvement. Classes are small, and classrooms are colorful, filled with homemade toys and craft projects. The Kids’ Co-op kindergarten classroom has two separate spaces — a classroom with a hand-cut alphabet hanging above the teacher’s head, and an activity and lunch room with a low table and lots of little blocks and shapes.

Here’s another thing: The classroom aide is also a parent. Kerry Moya spends two or three days a month in the classroom, just like every other parent with a student in the co-op. Parent involvement isn’t just a goal, it’s a requirement. Parents own and operate the preschool, attending monthly meetings and mandatory maintenance days, as well as helping in the classroom. The school also has full-time teachers in each classroom who are not parent volunteers.

“The way we teach and the support we have from the parents, we know it is the best for kids,” said Teri Johnston, director of the co-op. “We know we can do anything because we have so much parent involvement.”

Anything includes something as simple as a mud bog for younger kids and as complicated as high-tech photovoltaic solar panels subsidized by a grant from Green Power Development. The Kids’ Co-op, the only cooperative preschool in the state, is now solar-powered, with a system that meets most of the school’s electrical needs and reduced the average power bill from $300-$600 a month to less than $50.

Just like the parental involvement, which is as much a pedagogical model as a financial one, the solar panels have become a part of the curriculum alongside their place as a money-saving device for a cash-strapped nonprofit.

Cindy Kawasaki, a parent and president of the school’s board, said the children learn that the electricity for lights and air conditioning comes from the sun, even if they’re a little too young to understand exactly how that works. What they don’t know is that the money saved on power bills goes right back into the classrooms.

“Given that we’re a nonprofit, every dollar that doesn’t go to utilities goes to the kids,” Kawasaki said.

The school’s parent-run model made it easier to launch the solar project. It was something that one of the parents was interested in, so she found a way to make it happen. Parents have also led campaigns to bring a new playground to the 10,000-square-foot backyard and to plant gardens for each of the classrooms. While the school doesn’t make any extravagant claims about its sustainability, it employs a lot of low-impact strategies. Kids eat the vegetables and herbs that grow in the garden. Parents make and refurbish toys and furniture. Many of the toys are secondhand.

The environmental impact of the new solar panels is not one of its most obvious selling points. After they ruled out the roof, parents had a hard time deciding where to place the plates. Ultimately they decided to build a shell over the front yard and create a shaded meeting space. It gave the school a common area that was lacking inside the small building. Parents and kids now congregate there before and after class, which helps reinforce the community that already exists.

While the kindergartners learned their letters, parents of younger children came in to meet the teachers. One woman sat in the shade of the solar panels while her children played in the rocks. Meanwhile, inside the co-op, Moya kept an eye on her class.

“It’s a lot of work, but it’s so rewarding to know the other families and build that community that you wouldn’t get at another preschool,” she said.