After the birth of her first child, Renee Fornshill created a preschool in her home.
Four families with a total of 12 children soon joined her, meeting weekly for early childhood education. Fifteen years later, the Skye Chase Enrichment Cooperative in Alexandria, Virginia is flourishing. More than 120 children meet weekly at Good Shepherd Catholic Church to engage in classroom-based learning. Skye Chase is the only home education co-op recognized by the Diocese of Arlington, which extends across the northern parts of Virginia.
It took years of meetings and relationship-building with Good Shepherd Catholic Church for Fornshill to be allowed to use the classrooms she needed for a growing number of Catholic homeschoolers who wanted a local, weekly meeting and learning place.
“If you just get in a room with Renee [Fornshill], all you see is integrity, genius, cooperation, decency, and wanting to love her kids into whomever God wants them to be,” said Chuck McCoart, former pastor at Good Shepherd. “I felt like it was my job just to meet her and respect her and see where this was going to go.”
In 2008, after a test period, McCoart granted Fornshill the spaces still utilized by the co-op today.
Expert Instructors, Enriching Classes
Homeschool cooperatives have flourished in Virginia during the past two decades. Faith-based and secular, small and large, these parent-driven learning communities bolster the growing and unique needs of home educators while increasing access to expert instructors and social learning environments.
Like other faith-based co-ops in the area, Skye Chase fulfills a niche need: a Catholic homeschool experience incorporating many of the tenets of a Catholic school. Although parents do most of the teaching, Skye Chase provides several enrichment classes. Students wear uniforms, attend one full enrichment day and an optional community “park” day once a week, and have access to many clubs, field trips, and special community events.
This year, classes include art, chess, current events, environmental science, Greek culture and language, improvisational theater, Japanese culture and language, language arts, Latin, math, Old Testament, self-defense, and writing. A full nursery and preschool are available for younger children during the co-op hours.
Homeschool support groups play a big role in aiding homeschoolers to organize and work together. The Home Educators Association of Virginia (HEAV) works with more than 220 support groups in Virginia, including the Skye Chase support group.
“Support groups were formed in the early years so parents could meet regularly for instruction and encouragement,” said Yvonne Bunn, director of homeschool support and government affairs at HEAV. “These organized groups would bring in experienced parents or professionals to share their expertise and teaching methods.
“Over the years, I’ve seen a transition from local support groups for parents to co-ops for students,” said Bunn. “The first co-ops developed to provide opportunities for socialization: park days, gym days, science fairs, art shows. As homeschool students moved from the elementary to high school levels, parents gathered to share teaching responsibilities for more difficult subjects. They would meet together once a week in their homes and trade off teaching one or two subjects. After this modest beginning, co-ops began to take off in the 1990s.”
Utilizing Parent Experts
In the early years of Skye Chase, Fornshill enacted a policy of parent participation and accountability that holds strong to this day. At the start of each school year, a parent in charge of scheduling assigns other co-op parents tasks based on skills, experience, and interests. On-site parents or guardians fulfill a variety of roles—lead teacher, assistant teacher, hall monitor, substitute—and a monthly calendar and weekly updates ensure every person is filling a need on co-op day, which takes place every Friday.
Widespread volunteerism is a cornerstone at Skye Chase. Parent volunteers coordinate Smithsonian field trips, Kennedy Center shows, clubs, and extracurricular activities.
“As homeschooling is growing, co-ops are increasing,” Bunn said. “More and more parents are homeschooling during the high school years. Co-ops allow parents to trade off subjects as well as bring in teachers, either other parents or professionals, to teach.”
After two years of participation in the co-op, Kristin Friend, parent to three children enrolled in Skye Chase, earned the title of “lead teacher” this school year. She now instructs elementary-aged students in Japanese language and culture. Friend studied the language independently while living in Japan for three years and continued her learning with a college-level class upon returning stateside.
“I really want to share my love for all things Japanese with the kids,” Friend said. “I am trying to teach them a useful language, but also enough about the culture that they might be intrigued enough to someday visit, and most importantly, not to be afraid to do so.”
Co-ops are likely to continue to expand and grow, Bunn says.
“Homeschooling offers out-of-the-box learning with many educational options,” Bunn said. “Co-ops are part of individualized instruction and provide choices for additional learning opportunities: higher mathematics, robotics, foreign languages, AP courses, music, etc. Because home instruction is well-accepted as a viable educational alternative, parents are confident and more likely to become involved in co-op activities outside of the home to enhance their child’s learning experience.”
Although Skye Chase enrollment is at capacity, the directors have continued to find creative ways to accommodate the local homeschool community, and year after year families continue to return to Good Shepherd Catholic Church as a result.
Ashley Bateman ([email protected]) writes from Alexandria, Virginia.