During summer's waning days for the past 20 years, a group of adults has descended on the men's locker room in Van Nuys-Sherman Oaks Park.
They place easels and paint pots in the shower area, stack books in the "library," pile toys in a corner and assemble a child's kitchen in the center of the room. What was a locker room is transformed quickly into the Sherman Oaks Co-operative Nursery School.
Formed in 1964, the school maintains the same egalitarian goals and long waiting list it had when it opened. Like 10 others in the San Fernando Valley Council of Parent Participation Nursery Schools, the co-op is fully operated by the parents whose children attend it. One parent from each family teaches one day weekly, attends meetings monthly, serves on committees yearly and cleans regularly.
Although the number of such preschools has decreased over the last decade as the number of working mothers has increased, nearly all Valley co-ops now report full enrollments and most maintain waiting lists.
Doris O'Hara, 32, council delegate representing the Woodland Hills Parent Participation Nursery School, attributes a resurgence of interest in co-ops to the many instances of child abuse alleged at Southland preschools. "People are becoming more involved," said O'Hara, a former preschool teacher who now operates a sweater-importing business.
Lisa Marlow, the teacher at the Woodland Hills co-op, agreed. "Parents are becoming more aware of preschools and want to be more involved, partly because of the bad publicity," she said. She said she thinks employers are becoming more supportive of parents modifying work schedules to be active in co-ops.
Many members of co-ops work part time or evening shifts to accommodate their morning school duties, and think the schedule adjustment is worth the opportunity to be part of their child's early education and socialization. Fathers also may assume teaching duties and are the focus of an annual Saturday "Father's Day." Generally, fathers in the co-ops don't volunteer for regular teaching assignments because of job demands. Their participation tends to be limited to cleaning and setting up and to the monthly parents' meeting.
"Fathers are encouraged to come whenever they can, but a lot of them work during the week and just can't come in," said Randi Stein, president of the Sherman Oaks Co-operative Nursery School. Her husband is off at mid-week and sometimes will take over for her teaching stint. "The kids go crazy and wild when a dad is there. We always like it when a dad shows up because it takes a load off the mothers, as the kids tend to stick around that father," Stein said. She said that a single father is about to join the co-op--a first for it.
Parent-participation schools charge about one-fourth of what day-care centers charge, averaging $50 monthly for five-day-a-week care, from 9 a.m. to noon. While most mothers welcome the financial savings, they say that is not the main reason they join co-ops.
Drama instructor Gloria Watts, 37, is in her second year as a member of the Woodland Hills co-op. "The time you spend far outweighs any bargain prices," she said. "The parents at this school do not consider it a burden to participate. They consider it a privilege."
Watts and her husband, Jeffrey, 34, previously were involved in a Northern California co-op. The Wattses checked out 18 schools before entering daughter Katy, now 7 1/2, in a co-op there. Watts knew when she moved to the Valley she wanted preschool involvement with daughter Sara, 4 1/2.
"The benefits for my children are vast," she said. "I think you become a better parent. If you know what your children are trying to express, you can fill in the holes."
Co-ops have drawbacks for working mothers with little time for mandatory monthly meetings and cleanup duties. What is judged an opportunity by one parent to be a force in shaping a co-op's direction may be viewed by another as an obligation difficult to incorporate into a busy schedule.
As president of the Woodland Hills co-op, Watts knows firsthand the difficulties of grass-roots democracy. "With 30 children, that is 60 different opinions. You can't please everyone all the time," she said. "Sometimes we get a parent who might be overwhelmed and doesn't complete the responsibilities. We just try to retrain her."
Watts, a drama teacher in Pierce College's community services division, said she likes the fact that parents have a strong voice in the school's curriculum. They also choose which teacher is hired. "We wanted someone who was progressive," she said, and she believes the parents found that in Marlow, 25, a preschool teacher for eight years.