Steven Brou, a full-time machinist at Precision Valve and Trim in Baton Rouge, La., is learning to be as handy with plastic dinosaurs as he is with busted valves.
Committed to both his job and his role as "Daddy," Mr. Brou finds a way to manage his job and still work several times a year in his daughter's school, the Community Cooperative Nursery School in Baton Rouge.
Brou is one of many working parents who are required to donate time at the private CCNS in order for their children to attend. While their work helps to keep tuition under control, the motivation is largely to ensure that parents play a high-profile role in their children's transition to formal education.
Cooperative schools have been around since the 1920s, operating with varying degrees of success. They've had to adapt in recent years with the advent of more two-career couples.
Still, today there are more than 100,000 families involved in preschool and child-care co-ops nationally, according to E. Kim Coontz, a cooperative specialist at the Center for Cooperatives at the University of California in Davis.
"Cooperatives are a way to ground people as they move between work and home. It allows that one foot in the door of their children's out-of-home experience," she says.
"Many parents initially get involved to save money," she says, "and then stay in it because they find it's really a family of families, they become very connected."
Leaving work to help at such a school might pose a problem for some parents, "But often, with advanced planning, notice, and flexibility - 'I'll do this extra work; I'll work these extra hours' - parents can get there," says Diane Burts, professor of human ecology at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.
For Brou, participating in the CCNS program can mean a late night at the shop if there is unfinished work. And, as a worker who is paid by the hour, he may also lose salary if there is not enough work for him another day.
"It's worth the sacrifice to be with the kids," says Brou, who shares school duties with his wife, Christy. "It's a really good system, the way they work in the parent-involvement."
At CCNS, one parent assists a teacher in each of the school's classes for two- to five-year-olds. The school refers to this day of service as a "Special Day." Parents serve one morning every four to six weeks, depending on the class. They are also required to clean up the school at the end day.
Many parents choose co-op schools for the benefits they offer. "Parents have the opportunity to see their child in a different setting. They can look at their child in comparison to other children. They see the teacher acting they notice different ways of dealing with children, of saying things," Dr. Burts says.
According to Burts, both the teacher and the parent gain from a parent's presence in a classroom: "Both are learning more about the total child from one another. One might say, 'Oh, I never thought about doing that.' "
Kaye Eichler already has had two boys go through CCNS. Her third child, Ethan, just started in the two-year-olds class this fall.
A full-time assistant director for public school testing at the state Department of Education, Mrs. Eichler can manage her obligations to the school and her job by planning ahead: "I have so much vacation time that I accrue, and my schedule is such that if I know in advance when my 'Special Day' is, I can arrange to take my vacation time."
By sharing her obligations at the school with her husband, Bruce, who works full time as an insurance agent, Eichler's time-off during the school year may not exceed four or five half-days, she says.
As her children entered the school, Eichler made sure her superiors understood what she was involved with and what it would mean in terms of taking time off the job.
Other ways to help
Parents everywhere who can't take time off to regularly visit a child's class should work with schools to "enlarge the definition of involvement," says Joyce Epstein, director of the Center on School, Family, and Community Involvement at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
Some parents may be able to set up software for the school from home or work; working parents of older children might extend opportunities for children to come to the office to job shadow, Epstein suggests.
This way, children of working parents who can't come to the school frequently have a chance to see, "My mom cares about my school and about me as a student," she says.
So far, Dana Ydarraga, a nurse at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital in Baton Rouge, has been able to manage her time at CCNS and cover her 32-hour work week. Ms. Ydarraga submits her work schedule to her supervisor a month in advance. As long as she gets her time in, her boss is willing to help her make it work.
As Ydarraga prepares to increase her workload to full-time this month, she feels that much more committed to the program. "A lot of working moms are forced to take passive roles with their kids. This program gives me the chance to stay involved. When you make the effort, kids can see they are important," she says.
On her son Joshua's first "Special Day," she had no doubt he felt important: "He took me around the classroom, stopping at each toy and play station to introduce me to to his world. It was his his way of saying 'Welcome, Mommy.' "