Cheryl S. Lazaroff

After Cheryl S. Lazaroff's first visit to the Tucson Community School, she went home and announced it was the only place she'd teach in Tucson. That was 35 years ago, and she still teaches TCS preschoolers. Classes at the 63-year-old nonprofit, parent-owned cooperative start at age 3 and go into kindergarten at age 5; the school currently has 75 students. TCS depends on enrollment and grants, but the economy hasn't been too kind lately, so the school is hosting a fundraiser on Saturday, Jan. 28, with storytelling and music from Jordan Hill, Dennis Pepe, Banjo Paul and Tracy Shedd. For more info, visit www.tucsoncommunityschool.org.

When did you start teaching at TCS?

I first visited there in February of 1977, when we moved here from California. I recall going home and saying, "I found the only place in Tucson where I'd want to teach." Having left a wonderful school in California, I was afraid no one would ever leave, and there wouldn't be a job for me.

I understand this economy hasn't been too kind to the school this year.

Yes, the economy has hit the school this year, so the parents are rallying around, and we have extra fundraisers going on. This month is important, because we have a donor who is matching every donation up to $5,000 until the end of January. We've been contacting our alumni and reaching out to the wider community.

Tell me more about the school.

It's a parent-cooperative school. The parents of the current students are the owners; there is a board of trustees that own the deed to the property; and then there is a professional staff. It started out as a parent co-op. Parents met for a whole year before they started. One of the founders was Ruth Brant Davis, who died last year. I interviewed her at our 50th anniversary. Cooperative preschools were really big after World War II, when women were told to stop working and stay home, and a lot of talented women put a lot of time into cooperative schools. A lot of the co-ops went under in the 1970s, and not many are around. But we are here—we've lasted.

What makes cooperative schools special?

I think because there's something really important to families that they can learn by being in school together with their children that you don't get by just sending your children to a program or keeping your children at home. Every age group has teachers and an assistant, and parent assistants. We've had to become flexible over the years. Mom and dads split the time (along with) grandparents, aunts or nannies. Someone from the family is there to help. And you learn from other parents, teachers and how other kids behave compared to your own. Children get to experience being with a lot of different adults. Parents really begin to value their children's education and feel like school is important for everyone to be doing together.

What I admire about the school is its strong connection to its alumni.

I think there is a lot to be said for that, and part of it is that Tucson still thinks of itself as a small town, even if we are approaching a million in the metro area. Right now, a lot of our families come to us by word of mouth from other satisfied families. Then we get extended families. But we also get the children of our alumni. That's a grounding thing—pretty amazing.

Why does the cooperative method work well?

I think we've learned that with young children, it is extremely important to have the family involved. Parents are children's first teachers, and parents are the first early-childhood teachers and advocates. This environment provides the family the support to be working together where we are all on the same team, helping the child grow.

What do you think about the Jan. 28 fundraiser?

It sounds like a lot of fun, but you know this school has been enjoying making music and telling stories for a very long time. ... We've always had a lot of musician families. When I was hired, I was told, "We don't use records and tape recordings; we make our own music," and that's the way I learned. We make our own music, but, sure, now we use other sources and have more of a variety. We still don't use computers in the classroom. We do real stuff, and that includes making our own music. ... In the history of cooperative schools, TCS is a pretty big deal. I'm very happy to be part of it.

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