By Andrew Seidman
DEPTFORD TOWNSHIP - Loren Dann began class Tuesday the way many children would like school to start: by handing out candy.
Before her students could unwrap the treats, though, they found out they had been baited into an ethics lesson. Should the 7- and 8-year-olds keep the candy or give it to a sick friend, who could surely use a pick-me-up? Perhaps more important, do they have a duty to do so?
"Today," Dann declared, "we are going to talk about charity."
Soon, the students were debating whether people had a right to health care, an education, home ownership.
Dann's philosophy and ethics class is not a traditional subject for a 7- and 8-year-old age group in most schools. But then, not much about the Academic Cooperative Community in Deptford Township, where Dann teaches, is traditional.
The secular home-school cooperative began this year and meets once a week from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Thirty-two children ranging in age from 3 to 13 participate, and a parent in each of the 19 families is required to provide some sort of assistance. The co-op's six teachers are volunteer parents.
The co-op formed after a similar group in Pitman broke apart. The new group rents a building in Deptford that used to house a school and still has a library, gym, kitchen, and playground. There is a $115 fee per family that goes toward rent and insurance, plus a per-class fee.
Parents said this approach to education was appealing for a variety of reasons: comfort in knowing the teachers personally; less bureaucracy and pressure to "teach to the test" - a common concern among public school teachers and parents alike; and smaller class sizes (each is capped at 10).
"You can teach children what to think, or you can teach them how to think," said Katie Chiaravolloti, one of the organizers. "For us, my goal is to have critical thinkers: to have people who question authority, to have people who rock the boat a little bit."
Administratively, families vote on which classes are taught. This semester's offerings range from reading and numbers for toddlers to Greek mythology, art, and Latin for older students.
Some of the parents, including the four founding members, have homeschooled their children for most of their lives. Many said they take home the material discussed in class to reinforce the lessons and practice throughout the week.
Organizers say they are not anti-public school. One of them, Debbie Smalley, 38, of Mantua Township, used to teach special-education students at public and private schools.
"I know the challenges of meeting the needs of 12 to 24 kids," she said in an interview last month at her home with the other founders: Dann, 36, of Woodbury; Lauren Hodges, 27, of Glassboro; and Chiaravolloti, 39, of Elk Township.
"I just thought it would be a better fit for our family to allow them to have some more child time, as well as get their academics in," said Smalley, whose children, Jack, 8, and Lydia, 6, participate in the co-op.
Other members, such as Katie Dunkley, 38, of Sicklerville, are experiencing a co-op for the first time.
Public school curriculum was too rigorous for her 4-year-old son, Cody, Dunkley said. But her first grader, Isabella, is in "the system."
"We see both experiences," she said.
For Cody, Dunkley added, "at this age level, play is so important. We learn through play."
The co-op is not unique, though likely more structured than others.
"It's always been a fundamental part of home-based education," said Brian D. Ray, president of the National Home Education Research Institute, which specializes in home-school research. "Co-op is one of the main ways [parents] cover the flexibility and variety they want for their children's lives."
Families in the Gloucester County group said part of the appeal of this approach to education was knowing that different parents had different strengths. Dann, for example, is a professional artist. Smalley's experience as an educator makes her adept at teaching children tricks to better remember how to, say, construct a paragraph.
Whatever the strategy, the children appeared engaged on Tuesday.
In the philosophy class, Dann asked the six students whether they thought everyone had a right to see a doctor. They formed into a single line to indicate yes.
But when she tweaked the question, adding that the kids would have to help pay for those visits to the doctor, they split into two lines, three in each.
"I shouldn't have to pay," said Jack, Smalley's son. Then he reconsidered: "Maybe I would."
Dann offered comfort. "There are no wrong answers in philosophy," she said.