West Chester Twp. nursery takes unique approach to childcare

The West Chester Cooperative Nursery School was founded in 1969 at the Crestview Presbyterian Church and has been run as a co-op ever since, meaning: fewer employees, cheaper costs and more family involvement. CONTRIBUTED

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The West Chester Cooperative Nursery School was founded in 1969 at the Crestview Presbyterian Church and has been run as a co-op ever since, meaning: fewer employees, cheaper costs and more family involvement. CONTRIBUTED

A West Chester Twp. nursery has been approaching childcare a little differently for more than 50 years — calling the same building home and using a model that mandates family involvement in a student’s education.

The West Chester Cooperative Nursery School (WCCNS) was founded in 1969 at the Crestview Presbyterian Church and has been run as a co-op ever since, meaning: fewer employees, cheaper costs and more family involvement.

Laura Gilbert, the elected acting president of the school’s board, who has a daughter going into the 3s class and an older daughter who already graduated from WCCNS, said the school is one of very few cooperatives in the Cincinnati metropolitan area.

“What sets us aside from other preschools is that we’re a co-op, and so the only paid positions at our school are the teachers,” Gilbert said. “We have three phenomenal teachers and everything else falls back on the parents.”

Here’s how it works, according to Gilbert: The school has a five-position operating board that’s made up of parents, along with seven different departments that allows for day-to-day functions of the school.

A relative of each student, then, takes up a position either on the board or in a department. Additionally, each classroom has one parent volunteer each day to assist the teachers.

“So, you volunteer in your child’s classroom, usually about 2 to 3 times a month, but then you’ll have a ‘job’ [within the school] — something from housekeeping to fundraising to outdoor committee,” Gilbert said. “Because the only paid positions are teachers, our parents are very involved.”

Gilbert said a cooperative like this promotes a “unified belief in being involved with your student’s education,” which is one of WCCNS’ two big draws for parents when looking for childcare.

The other draw? High parent involvement allows the school to employ only three faculty for the entire operation, which means low overhead costs and low tuition fees for parents.

The school accepts kids from 2-5 years old, split by age into classes of around nine students each. The 2′s class is $60 a month for one day a week; 3′s is $100 a month for two days a week; 4′s is $125 a month for four days a week; and 5′s is $155 a month for four days a week.

“Our tuition is significantly less than other preschools, and the reason behind that is we only have the three paid teacher positions,” Gilbert said. “The way we look at it, is, we keep the costs low that way you’re not paying more for preschool and having to invest so much of your personal time.”

Taylor Terry, who has a two year old son entering the program this fall, said she and her husband toured five different daycares before landing on WCCNS.

She said WCCNS offered the smallest class size, no wait to get enrolled, and was significantly cheaper than other options they had looked at. One of the other daycares they toured quoted Terry $875 a week.

Gilbert said many parents are interested in enrolling their kids but some are unsure about their ability to commit to the time, which Gilbert understands. The school doesn’t necessarily mandate parent involvement, but it does mandate that some relatives — whether it’s an aunt, uncle, grandparent, etc. — get involved.

“Truly, it is a commitment,” Gilbert said. “We understand that a lot of families have two parents that are working now. So, within our classrooms, it’s not always parent volunteers, we have quite a few grandparents that volunteer their time instead.”

Sometimes, Gilbert said, hesitant parents book a tour and get to see the school in action, which can win them over.

“It’s one of those environments that’s very tough to describe on a website,” Gilbert said, “so when we give tours, we try to do it during school hours so they get to kind of experience that extra bit that does make us different than your other preschools.”

This year, current enrollment sits at 26 students total, with a capacity of 32. The pandemic hit enrollment hard for WCCNS, where the annual enrollment averaged around 32 kids before COVID. At the pandemic’s height, enrollment dipped to 23 students.

“It was truly amazing that even with COVID we were able to survive, because we are a small co-op,” Gilbert said. “This year, we’re definitely beginning to see some bounce back after COVID. Our enrollment is slowly getting back.”

Gilbert said she got involved with the school’s board after attending meetings and watching the members confront the daycare’s unique challenges in the pandemic.

“I just remember watching them kind of in awe of how they were just rolling with all the COVID regulations and just how hard they were working, Gilbert said. “It was just one of those eye opening experiences. Almost no one knows what they’re doing, but you just work and you figure it out.”

“After seeing that, I just slowly got more involved with the school. I realized that it’s very easy for everyone to be quiet and wait for someone to step up, or you can just step up and do it,” Gilbert said.

In a school with only parent oversight, no paid board positions and thus a relatively high turnover rate for the decision-makers, the cohesiveness of the school is something Gilbert believes is brought on by the consistency of the approach: Certain types of parents have been, and will be, charmed by the chance to actually get involved in their kids’ schooling.

“We didn’t want to get into something that was catty or cliquey, but it really seems like everyone is just focused on the kids learning what they need to learn and having the best experience they can have, Terry said. “I think it’s a lot of parents who are really, really child focused.”

“It is almost a blessing and a curse for the co-op, because it definitely will attract parents of a similar mindset of wanting to be very involved, and who are — we’ll be honest — privileged enough to be able to be that involved,” Gilbert said. “The negative is, it’s not always the largest demographic you’re pulling from.”

Gilbert said nine times out of 10, a parent will send younger siblings to WCCNS if their oldest child had gone previously, and people mainly know about the school through word-of-mouth.

Over the school’s 50+ years of being a staple in West Chester, Gilbert said it’s developed deep roots in the community, adding that “...almost everyone has someone they know that has gone there at some point.”

Gilbert said her oldest child was able to learn about different cultures and holidays through her peers’ actual families who were given the opportunity to talk to kids in the classroom — instead of just being taught curriculum via a teacher.

“I feel like my daughter got so much more out of it, hearing her peers and their parents talk to her about traditions as opposed to a teacher who just read about them in a book,” Gilbert said. “It’s one of the most accepting places I have been.”

For Terry, she said she knows the school isn’t for everyone, but it felt like a perfect match for her family.

“If a parent takes the time to go tour the school, it really just sells itself,” Terry said. “Everyone thinks their program is the best, and I’m sure for every person that’s true. But, when we went there, we just were like, ‘Yep, this fits. This is perfect.’”

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