Cooperative Preschool a hidden gem of Rhode Island College

Danielle Adams
At first glance, the campus Cooperative Preschool looks like a shed; a one-room building placed randomly in a parking lot behind the tennis courts. Yet a closer look reveals that inside those four walls is a burgeoning community of children, parents, teachers and students, all of whom understand the importance of beginning and continuing education.

The Co-op’s original constitution, created in 1979, states that “[t]he purpose of the Co-operative Preschool is to provide on campus childcare to the Rhode Island College community through the co-operative participation of the parents.”

It is the parental involvement that makes the Co-op unlike other daycare or preschool facilities.

Parents who use of the Co-op are expected to spend a minimum of four hours in the classroom with the students, and those who have two or more children enrolled are required to volunteer six hours of their time.

Parents are responsible for cleaning up after the children and themselves, supervising and helping with all activities and keeping a regular log of who is in the classroom. Monthly meetings must be attended by the parents, who also serve on the administrative board where, along with teachers and work-study students, they find ways to improve the environment of the Co-op.

RIC Cooperative Preschool students participate in a "shape-up" event.
The Co-op provides affordable and quality daycare to parents who may not otherwise be able to pursue their own academic or professional careers. For this reason, full-time undergraduate student parents are allowed first access to the Co-op, followed by part-time undergraduates, full- and part-time graduate students, and, finally, faculty and staff.

Undergraduate student-parent Catherine DeConcilis, whose daughter Sophia is enrolled in the Co-op, said she loves having the preschool as an option because she is able to continue her education and can be a part of her daughter’s education as well. DeConcilis said it was “very rewarding” to be in the Co-op with her daughter and observe what takes place there.

Parental involvement at the Co-op was strengthened in 1990 under the supervision of the second head teacher, Polly Erickson, who served from 1980-96. Parents were asked to follow and enforce rules and provide more structural activity supervision with the children to bolster the school environment.

The Co-op became licensed by the Department of Children, Youth and Families during this time, which meant that the preschool became a state-approved early childcare and education facility, with standards being raised on the quality of care and education within the Co-op.

Over the years, the Co-op’s location moved around campus, from several rooms in Weber Residence Hall to their current location in the “shed” by Whipple Hall in the late 1970s.

Erickson says that one of the most significant changes that occurred under her direction was the design and erection of the Co-op’s own fenced-in playground. Both parents and teachers helped create the playground including building the storage shed, assembling the play equipment and hauling sand.

Co-op head teacher Martha Dwyer with two of her students.
Current head teacher Martha Dwyer adds that with the support of the Student Community Government, which funds all of the Co-op’s finances, the playground area has been upgraded with new equipment, new furnishings, and a safe play surface. A new swipe card access system is also being installed.

Yet, even before these upgrades, the Co-op was well on its way to becoming a distinguished, albeit not well known, part of the Rhode Island College community.

Providing the children with a solid education was definitely one of the most important aims of the Co-op from its inception. “I tried to make it more than just child care since I was a certified elementary school teacher,” said Erickson. “I really tried to incorporate meaningful age appropriate curriculum for ages three to five years old.”

This attitude continues today, as Dwyer integrates Rhode Island’s early learning standard into her curriculum. Under Dwyer’s instruction, the Co-op’s students continue to receive an age appropriate education to prepare them for kindergarten and provide a strong foundation on which to build the rest of their education.

Activities in the classroom include a science table where the children can experiment with weight and measurement, a math table with activities to help with counting, and a writing table where the children keep their own journals for writing and drawing. Each week a new letter is featured as part of the learning process, and all art projects focus around the letter.

The Co-op is one of the few preschools of its kind in the area. Dwyer admits that she was at first intimidated by the parents playing such a crucial role in the Co-op, but said it has helped her become a better teacher.

A new sign is unveiled at the Co-op in 2009.
Former parent-student Shannon Gormley, who utilized the Co-op for two years, said that as an older student it was hard for her to meet people, but the Co-op helped her do that. The classroom serves as an outlet to form lasting relationships not only with other parents, but with other children as well.

Pia Saab, whose daughter was a student at the Co-op for two years, said it was a place to “build relationships and connections in a positive environment.”

And the links can last long after leaving the Co-Op, said, Gormley. “I still keep in touch with other parents and we help each other with our kids. It’s a wonderful connection.”

Added Gormley: “I could not have finished my education without the Co-op. It is one of the best experiences I’ve ever had.”