Ad Code

Why this Texas mom started a co-op to educate her kids | Leaf Probably

Natalie Simmons, a stay-at-home single mom, says she has no idea which public school her two children would attend in the McKinney, Texas suburb of Dallas.

She chose a different path to give her daughters Harlow (7) and Harper (5) a good education.

“Being a stay-at-home mom is hard enough because you never say goodbye to your kids, but then being a stay-at-home single mom is hard enough [means] you never really get five seconds,” says Simmons.

Harper, left, and Harlow. (Photos: Natalie Simmons)

Simmons, now 40, began sending her two children to Castle Montessori of McKinney when Harper was just 18 months old.

She says she liked the child-led, unstructured environment of the Montessori school and its emphasis on science, engineering, engineering, and math projects.

Simmons then sent the kids to Mom’s Day Out, an affordable day school at Cottonwood Creek Church in Allen, Texas, another suburb near McKinney.

The children’s last stop in the fall 2019 and spring 2020 school curriculum was The Children’s Workshop, a Montessori themed school in Plano. The school has been closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Simmons says.

In March 2020, when schools across Texas sent kids home for distance learning, Simmons said their attitude toward traditional education—even Montessori schooling—changed.

“We never returned after spring break,” she recalls.

Simmons says school requirements for children to wear masks during the pandemic have become “non-negotiable” for them.

Specifically, in September 2020, the McKinney Independent School District released a statement saying the public school system would need to comply with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s statewide mask mandate.

As a grown woman, Simmons says she’s had trouble wearing a mask for long periods of time.

“What do you think a child will do?” she asks. “Send my kids back [to school] wearing masks was unacceptable and would not happen.”

Looking for a cooperative

In July 2020, Simmons signed up her kids for a co-op meeting at Obstacle Warrior Kids, a Dallas recreation facility.

A cooperative is a group of mothers who come together to teach each other’s children. A co-op typically acts as an additional “social learning option” for homeschooled children.

Obstacle Warrior Kids “is a perfect place for co-op because kids can blow off steam between classes,” says Simmons. “I signed up immediately.”

The mothers were “hunky, hippie, and homeopathic, and adopted a soft lifestyle as parents,” says Simmons, who was consistent with her own lifestyle.

“This community felt really great,” says Simmons. “The woman who started the co-op made it look effortless.”

But after exploring several co-ops, Simmons said, she felt compelled to surround her family with like-minded people.

For example, when the new coronavirus first broke out in the US, it was wise to be on high alert, she says. But as time passed and more information about COVID-19 was released in the summer of 2020, she recalls feeling alone as she questioned the media’s portrayal of the disease.

Harlow and Harper hadn’t seen their best friends from their previous school in about six months because their mothers quarantined them, Simmons says.

“Back then you were kind of seen as an outcast for fighting back [against] the system,” Simmons said. “I didn’t want to wear a mask myself because the mainstream media narrative didn’t add up. It wasn’t logical.”

Inspired by acting, Simmons started her own co-op called Silva in the fall of 2020.

Growing Silva

In his freshman year, Simmons wanted to enroll about 30 families in Collin County, Texas—about 60 children in all. Silva eventually attracted 45 families, or about 90 children.

Within three semesters, Silva’s size nearly tripled to about 240 children, and the co-op now has four chapters in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

Children in Silva plant orange seeds.

Silva — Latin for forest — focuses on permaculture, which Simmons describes as “a pretty hot topic right now.”

Permaculture is a natural approach to land management that uses so-called slow and easy principles.

“No herbicides, no pesticides, using common sense logic as opposed to big [agriculture] Agriculture,” explains Simmons.

After meeting Nicholas Burtner, founder of the School of Permaculture in Plano, Texas, Simmons began taking 40 online courses there to earn a certificate in permaculture design. Burtner provided her with a scholarship.

In the spring of 2020, Simmons’ two children helped out with a project at Grateful Farmstead, a property owned by a friend of Burtner’s in the Dallas suburb of Greenville. In return, Burtner taught the kids permaculture.

The 12 principles of permaculture focus on logic and “slow and steady” fixes, Simmons says.

“I don’t want my kids to grow up with instant gratification,” she says, noting how quickly Amazon packages can arrive.

“I want to teach these kids not to suck,” Simmons says, laughing. “I want to teach these kids what hard work is. I want my kids to get dirty. I want my kids to work hard. I want my kids to do favors because they love someone, not because they expect something in return.”

How Silva works

Before focusing on permaculture, Silva was a nature-based cooperative. The children played in the forest and got to know animals like bats and frogs.

“Fun in nature,” says Simmons. “The kids will get dirty and take risks and they might get hurt, but risky play is actually very, very important for cognitive development and mental health. When children take risks and process them, they take on a lot of anxiety.”

Silva now meets once a week between 12pm and 3pm at various wildlife sanctuaries and farms in the Dallas-Fort Worth area

Silva is not a drop-off environment: at least one parent must stay with one or more children.

Silva charges each family—not each child—$125 per semester. If a family wants to join two chapters, the price increases to $175. It costs $200 for three chapters.

Though Simmons makes a profit, she says the money helps pay for supplies — nature toys, farm implements, tables, chairs, giant hammocks and swings — and her gas money so she can travel to the different counties.

“Some of these places I drive an hour and a half to get there,” she says.

“It’s a full-time job,” she adds. “I wouldn’t want anything else to do with my life. I absolutely love it, but I’ve found a way to keep staying at home.”

Each state has different rules for cooperatives, including how they are funded. Although Texas provides no state funding for co-ops, the state has lenient rules that make it easy to start one.

Alaska is one of the states that give approximately $3,000 per child to coops. This is because Sarah Palin, a Republican who served as Governor of Alaska from 2006 to 2009, is a proponent of homeschooling and homeschools her own children.

“That’s exactly what I wanted”

Simmons says she watched Harlow learn to climb trees, start fires and introduce herself to new families in the co-op and make them feel welcome.

Children at Silva find fun on a fallen tree.

“Their logic, their way of figuring things out, getting creative and coming up with solutions is amazing and outstanding,” says Simmons of her children. “That’s exactly what I wanted for her.”

Another parent, Reyna Mendoza, discovered Silva on Facebook. Their 9-year-old son Chris attends the Tarrant County Cooperative on Tuesdays and does the rest of his schooling at home.

Texas’ mask mandate was the tipping point where she decided to homeschool Chris, Mendoza says, particularly because she couldn’t bring him to class.

Chris is studying core subjects – science, social studies, reading, language arts – while online at

This includes, for example, learning fractions or decimals.

Mendoza also incorporates hands-on activities like baking cookies to teach her son these concepts.

“I saw the pace and how [Chris] can learn much better if [the education] is one to one,” she says.

But because of the cooperative as a complement to her son’s studies, Mendoza says, Chris is no longer shy.

Reyna Mendoza’s son Chris.

“He was so shy at the time and didn’t really ask any questions,” Mendoza recalls. “Even if he didn’t get it [the material], he would say, ‘Oh, ok.’ Now he’s going to say, ‘I don’t understand.’ Now he’s making friends. Now he approaches people.”

The cooperative organizes weekend camping trips in the summer to teach wilderness survival skills near large lakes like Lake Texoma, she says.

On a camping trip, Chris learned how to make a fire and what foods and plants to eat. He does a lot of things that other children don’t learn, says his mother.

“They learn the basics at home, but I wanted them to learn survival skills and other things,” Mendoza says of Chris and his younger sister Natalie. “I showed up at one of their events and we liked it and we moved on.”

Another parent, Karly Meador, says their 6-year-old son Jordan also used to be shy and withdrawn but has become more social since joining the co-op in the fall. Meador says she found out about the cooperative through Facebook.

Like Simmons, Meador says she has “no idea” which Dallas public school Jordan would attend.

The family of three recently relocated to Dallas from suburban Savannah. Because Jordan has severe asthma, he can’t wear a mask all day.

Why cooperatives appeal

Parents form and join cooperatives so their children can receive proper socialization while gaining a solid education in less time.

Because of the With the rise of homeschooling, “everyone is starving for group time,” says Jube Dankworth, chief operating officer of Texas HOME Educators.

“I’ve seen working moms homeschooling and other moms turning to pods,” says Dankworth.

A pod is when several families – maybe four or five – create a micro school for their children and hire a teacher.

What is undeniable, given the experiences of these families, is that the way Americans view traditional brick-and-mortar public schools has changed.

Do you have an opinion about this article? To opt out please email and we will consider posting your edited comments in our regular “We Hear You” feature. Be sure to include the article’s URL or title, as well as your name and city and/or state.

Post a Comment


Close Menu