Early – well, not all that early (these are homeschoolers, after all, and they like to avoid rush hour traffic) - on a Tuesday morning, teenagers file in to the classroom wing of a welcoming Catholic parish. They spontaneously begin to move desks and chairs into position, chatting and laughing while they work. When the teacher arrives, they greet her cheerfully and a few regale her with amusing stories about the subject she teaches. Occasionally, a priest drops in to relate his own anecdotes.
These students meet once each week for classes in our homeschool high school co-op. I’m not going to pretend they all adore physics, or Spanish, or whatever class they happen to sit in at the moment, but they do have a certain energy about them. They aren’t afflicted by that need many teenagers have to appear cool and indifferent – they just don’t suffer from the lassitude that comes with a daily grind of sitting through hours of class. They actually look forward to this weekly opportunity to engage with the teachers and students of their co-op.

Describing the Necessity of the Catholic Homeschool Co-op

What is this place? Lest it sound like it may, the co-op was never meant to substitute for traditional school. Why does it exist? When a group of my homeschooling friends and I first tried to find a location for our nascent co-op – an enterprise with paid teachers and traditional classroom settings, for the most part - a priest who had just begun to understand why we homeschooled became hopelessly befuddled. Why, he wondered, if we were choosing to educate at home, did we need a co-op? While it seemed obvious to us, I can see why he would ask, and I can try to explain.
Most homeschooling families carefully guard two treasures: time and independence. Time - at least, protecting that scarce resource – is what started us on the homeschooling path. The idea appealed to my engineering sensibilities: freed from the drudgery of a commute and long days at school, we could study in the morning and still beat traffic for field trips and other activities. In the lower grades, my children attended group classes that gathered for art, history, language or science. I doubt that my oldest would have had the chance to present a project on Babylonian math or act in a skit about the composition of the Star Spangled Banner without those priceless meetings. In large part, teaching core subjects took place at home while boisterous extracurriculars happened elsewhere – generally other peoples’ homes.
Then came the prospect of high school and some moments of panic.

How could I ever teach high school language? I knew I could never do justice to biology. What about math? My comfort level with quantitative subjects doesn’t necessarily translate to cheerfully conveying anything about them to a genetically related teenager without the same kind of appreciation. And do I want to add critiquing her writing to the complexity of my relationship with my teenage daughter? While that worked for many of my friends, it never appealed to me.  Some subjects just require expertise and enthusiasm I sorely lack. For us, it seemed high school would require just a bit more structure and a community effort. Like many other homeschoolers, we were willing to relinquish some time - but only one or two days a week.

Solidarity in our Vocation as Catholic Parents

The high school co-op that emerged threw open a door that was previously only cracked.  Essential to its success were the talents of homeschooling parents that had been shared somewhat informally and sporadically. Now, we meet in church spaces donated by generous pastors with a schedule of classes, lunch, and study hall once a week.  Church office staff become the delighted recipients of homemade cookies during Christmas and Mardi Gras parties, grandmas roam the hall with the offspring of busy teachers, and parish priests drop in occasionally for a visit (who knew one had been a physics teacher?) Parents pitch in by helping to clean up, monitor lunch and study hall, and bring helping hands in the form of siblings for church service projects.

Teachers range from social workers and biologists to engineers, artists and professors. They may not all be homeschooling parents, but they get homeschoolers: we sometimes need an enthusiastic expert to teach those subjects we ourselves may dread.  Thus each brings a spectacular level of energy and creativity to the classroom. And in these classrooms sit polite but energetic students – the critical ingredient. Students participate in heated debates about the atomic bomb in history class and evolution in science class; they give presentations on subjects ranging from the chemistry of glass blowing to the culture of obscure foreign countries; they produce campaign videos for presidential candidates…the list goes on.

Yet even with participation in the co-op, parents retain their autonomy as teachers and, perhaps more accurately, principals of our children’s schools. Weekly meetings don’t interfere with community college classes (which many homeschooled high schoolers take), classwork at home or online, or other activities - and help to avoid the time crunch that plagues most high school students. What the co-op offers the homeschooled teenager is a central place to come together for classes with other Catholic homeschoolers. In their busy lives, once a week is just about right. And their parents, their “primary and principal educators,” as Pope Paul VI wrote, can continue to teach and to direct the education of their children.