BALTIMORE — When Paul Kilduff enrolled his daughter, Krista, in Loch Raven cooperative nursery school, he didn't know exactly how much "cooperation" he was in for.
At first, Kilduff--who is a part-time limousine driver and considers himself the family's homemaker--was one of the "co-oping" parents, taking his turn in the nursery school classroom one day a month, going to monthly meetings and heading the field trip committee.
Then he became the designated substitute, usually taking the paid teacher's place about once a month. Now he is the teacher, finishing the year for a woman on maternity leave.
"The only thing I'm not doing is baking," says Kilduff.
Although Kilduff's involvement is perhaps unusual, parents' cooperation and contributions of time, energy, talent and ideas are what make cooperative preschools work.
"We are totally parent-run," says Sarah Delaney, president of the school at Parkside United Methodist Church.
The cooperative in cooperative preschool means:
* Parents go into the nursery school classroom regularly--usually a couple of days a month.
* Parents attend monthly meetings at which decisions are made about tuition, curriculum, equipment, fund raising.
* Parents join committees that handle the day-to-day chores of a preschool.
What parents get in return is a closer look at, and greater involvement in, their children's early education. And they get this early education less expensively because they invest time and energy as well as money. At Windsor Forest, for instance, it costs $25 a month for the two-day-a-week program and $35 a month for the three-day-a-week program.
"I consider it a privilege--most days--to have such an intimate involvement with, first, my daughter's, and now, my son's education," says Moira Corson Cook, president of Windsor Forest Cooperative Preschool in Arbutus. "It's a chance to be so intimately involved with the child at this young age."
At Windsor Forest, parents of children in the two-day program must work two or three mornings a month while school is in session from 9:15 to 11:45 a.m. Parents of children in the three-day program are required to work three or four mornings a month.
Schedules are set two months ahead and each "co-oping" parent is responsible for getting a substitute if the obligation cannot be met.
For some children, having mom or dad at school a few days a month eases the separation process. Kilduff concedes his daughter likes school better "when I'm there."
In addition to being in the classroom with their children, parents also have an opportunity to influence the direction of their children's education through the monthly meetings.
Most cooperatives, run by a parent board of directors, employ one or two teachers responsible for the school's curriculum and for teaching with parent helpers.
At Catonsville Cooperative Nursery School, parents share the curriculum responsibility, says president Ann Pearce. For instance, "a creative play mother" and "a science and nature mother" meet with teachers to plan those parts of the school day.
The Maryland State Department of Education lists more than 40 cooperative preschools among the state's more than 260 non-public nursery schools and day-care centers it licenses.
But cooperative preschools are not for everyone, parents agree. Keeping up "co-oping" responsibilities takes time and "is a big commitment," says Cook. "We have to make sure people understand what that commitment is."
Lack of commitment will close Loch Raven cooperative after this school year, says Kilduff. The recent decision was made for two reasons: less than full enrollment at the school, which can take 12 2-year-olds and 16 3- and 4-year-olds, and the unwillingness of any parent to be president of the co-op.
"There are a lot (of parents) who want to be in cooperatives but who can't work it out," says Pearce.
Barbara Brenner, author of "The Preschool Handbook," likes the idea of cooperatives, even though they may be more difficult to run with so many single parents and two-earner families.
"There's something very attractive about the fact that the costs are low," she says. Also, "preschools that I've looked at take into consideration parents' schedules," allowing them to be more flexible in their contributions.
At the Children's Underground, a cooperative day-care center in New York City, teachers are paid, so parents help out in other ways, says director Mary Hayes.
"As the needs of the community changed, we changed our idea of how parents could cooperate," Hayes says, citing the presence of parents on the board of directors, on the maintenance committee, as newsletter editors and as administrative aides.
Although some fathers, such as Kilduff, are extremely involved in the preschools, cooperatives are still mostly women's worlds.
But "the kids love it" when dads come, says Cook.
That's part of what attracted Kilduff to Loch Raven preschool. After a few days of helping out, he said, "I really kind of liked it. The kids liked me. I sort of am a kid myself."