On Martin Luther King Day in 2016, Tralandra Stewart asked her three children a simple question. She wanted to know what they had learned in elementary school in Cypress, Texas, about the civil rights pioneer.
“They said, ‘I don’t know. I think he was a man who made a speech,’” she recalled them saying. “They couldn’t give me any information.”
At that point, Stewart, a public school secretary, had already noticed gaps in her children’s education. The idea of home-schooling them — despite not even knowing where to start — was something the family had been considering. But that moment crystalized their decision.
Stewart spent the summer preparing herself and her family to begin home-schooling in 2017, when the children were in fifth, third, and first grades. Six years later, Stewart has extended her love for the practice into Home Grown Homeschoolers Inc., a Texas-based co-op, where some 25 families join her to teach their children, go on educational field trips, and prioritize learning in a communal way.
The Stewarts are one of nine Black families who spoke with NBC News about home-schooling and the community learning pods they’ve created to home-school their kids together. These co-ops have multiplied in response to educational racial disparities, gun violence in schools, the scaling back of inclusive education and more. For many families, home-schooling is necessary to prioritize Black-centric education, keep their children safe, and usher in a new future for Black children amid the nation’s changing educational landscape.
More and more Black families have turned to home-schooling in the past six years, but 2020 saw a significant increase when the pandemic disrupted in-person education, sending children home to rely on virtual lessons. At the onset of the pandemic, 3.3% of Black families were home-schooling their children, but that share increased to 16.1% by fall 2020, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey. These newcomers joined hundreds of Black home-schooling families who have spent years growing the practice, forming their own communities like African American Homeschool Moms in New Jersey, Stewart’s Home Grown Homeschoolers Inc. in the Houston area, the Cultural Roots Co-Op in Virginia, among many others.
“We started off with four families,” Stewart said of the co-cop, which largely operates through donations. “We started going to our little community center and doing science projects and different things with the kids. We were like, ‘This is fun! What if we had more families?’”
Creating BIPOC-centered spaces
Traditionally, white families, who make up most of the country’s home-schoolers, list religion and negative peer pressure in their decisions to home-school, according to a survey from the National Center for Education Statistics. But Black families cite the unique circumstances of being Black in America as fueling their dissatisfaction with traditional schooling.
The racial disparities in education are well documented. Black students are more likely to be over-disciplined in schools and have campuses with a lot of police, metal detectors and security cameras. And Black students are particularly vulnerable to being falsely labeled with emotional or intellectual disorders. All of this can lead to poor educational outcomes.
Marquita Straus said she feared her daughter Roo would fall victim to the school-to-prison pipeline when teachers complained of behavioral issues and difficulty socializing. Roo was diagnosed with autism at 8 years old, Straus said, and her behavioral differences began to make sense. Still, she kept Roo, now 10, in traditional school until a violent incident with a teacher prompted her to look at other educational options for her daughter.
“Her teacher, a white woman, was physically rough with her, put her in a classroom by herself and isolated her there without explaining why. Roo was traumatized,” Straus said, calling the incident the “last straw” for her, leading her to decide to home-school both of her daughters.
Straus launched her Tribe on a Quest blog and social media platform to share her experience with home-schooling a child with autism. She said Roo has been much happier and better adjusted since being home-schooled.
Instead of battling “with people who are not in tune with what their child needs, I encourage considering home-schooling as an option,” Straus said. “It’s completely changed the way I parent and it’s changed my kids’ lives.”
Black home-schoolers said that, along with protecting their children from racial disparities and abuse, they don’t have to worry about their children getting white-washed versions of Black history — or no Black history lessons at all. For home-schoolers like Andrea Thorpe, who runs the 3,700-member African American Homeschool Moms group on Facebook, the practice has been an effective response to the swath of conservative legislation introduced to limit discussions of race in public schools since 2021.
Thorpe said her group is crucial, “especially in this day and time when there’s a rewriting of history and books are being banned. Parents are stepping up and saying, ‘I don’t have any bearing on what will be taught in public schools, but here in our household this is the accurate truth we’re going to teach.’”
Tailoring education to children’s needs
Thorpe said she and her husband turned to home-schooling more than a decade ago when their oldest daughter was about 4 years old. Thorpe said she’s aware of the cultural benefits of home-schooling her three daughters, now 11, 16 and 18, but back then, they simply wanted a chance to tailor their educational experiences to the girls’ needs.
This is a common motivation among Black home-schoolers, according to a 2015 report in the Journal of School Choice. Among the top reasons Black families cited in the survey chose home-schooling were sharing specific values and worldviews (34.6%), encouraging better academic outcomes (38.3%), and customizing children’s education (28.4%).
“Once I figured out what my kids’ learning styles were, I felt freed,” Thorpe said. “Even though we’d be covering the same topic, they might not be learning in the same way. One child might read about it, I have another who’s more tactile so she could make up a play about it or act it out, and the other could just put on her headphones and listen. In a traditional classroom you’d have to choose one or the other.”
For Thorpe and the other families, the benefits of home-schooling have been many. They reported better academic performance by their children, improved mental well-being, and stronger familial bonds. “If they need help with something, the older ones help the younger ones,” Thorpe said. “It fosters family. It helps strengthen the bonds among siblings. They look out for one another.”
Some 10 and 15 years ago, resources tailored for Black parents looking to home-school were hard to find. This is why advocates like Thorpe started groups to reach Black home-schoolers far and wide. Hers is among dozens of groups where home-schoolers share resources, curriculum, advice and more.
Some of the families told NBC News that they initially joined local co-cops, largely white-run and often religious, but found the experience to be isolating, full of microaggressions and highly politicized. So they decided to form their own groups, centering the experiences and needs of Black and Indigenous families and other people of color.
Jessica Dulaney, communications director with the nonprofit Coalition for Responsible Home Education, said the experiences of Black families track with the fact that home-schooling was systemically deregulated in the 1980s and ’90s after Christian fundamentalists fought to prioritize home-school education that aligned with their ideologies and excluded all others.
“Traditionally many of the most popular home-school curriculum and resources over the last few decades are full of that ideology,” Dulaney said. “So it’s oftentimes difficult for home-schooling parents who are Black or brown or otherwise from more marginalized communities to find home-schooling resources that reflect their history, their culture, their experiences, and sometimes that can translate into a home-school group.”
She said that while home-schooling in co-ops or other community groups can be a great way to identify and mitigate the child abuse that is sometimes present in isolated home-school settings, parents should do the research necessary to “determine if a home-school co-op is the best fit for your family.”
“The best home-school groups are those that are as welcoming and inclusive as possible,” she said.
Financial barriers to Black home-schooling
The current state of Black home-schooling marks a shift in the practice. For years, Black home-schoolers drew criticism for turning away from a traditional schooling system that Black people had fought so hard to be a part of. What was once perceived as a practice for wealthy white families now seems accessible, and even preferable, for some working- or middle-class Black families.
Cheryl Fields-Smith, a professor of education at the University of Georgia, explored the rise of single Black mothers choosing to home-school in her 2020 book “Exploring Single Black Mothers’ Resistance Through Homeschooling.” Single mothers usually make home-schooling work by planning around their schedules and relying on co-ops and school-based programs like extracurricular activities and after-school sports.
Camille Kirksey, who is not a single mother, home-schools her sons, 15 and 11, and her 7-year-old daughter, in their Detroit hometown and has devoted herself to helping other parents begin home-schooling, no matter their financial situations or marital status. Through her platform, The Intuitive Homeschooler, she helps parents and guardians navigate state home-schooling requirements and find curriculum, and provides overall guidance.
“I worked full-time the first three years of home-schooling,” Kirksey said. “It wasn’t like I was at home and we had all this money. We cut our income in half to be able to do this. It took sacrifice to get here. There are a lot of parents that do work from home who home-school, or they have their own businesses.”
Resources like the VELA Education Fund and Outschool also work to make home-schooling financially feasible for families from all backgrounds. Outschool, a California-based nonprofit, launched its community grant program in 2020 to help families through virtual learning during the pandemic. The company partners with community groups, schools and home-schooling co-ops across the country to help families afford nontraditional education options through millions of dollars in grants.
“Financial barriers are, in a lot of ways, why Outschool exists — to give families the ability to at least afford the tools for their home-schooling journeys,” said Justin Dent, the executive director of Outschool. “But one of the approaches that I think will continue making home-schooling more affordable for Black families is when it’s done in community.”
Black home-schoolers across the country know this full well. But financial barriers aren’t the only hardships mitigated by communal home-schooling. A common criticism of the practice is that home-schooling diminishes socialization among children, but co-ops have served as a great way for Black children to make friends and build meaningful relationships. Black parents who want to home-school often feel a lack of confidence or question whether they can do it effectively, families said. But home-schooling alongside other families has helped increase Black parents’ belief in their ability to serve as their children’s primary educator.
Alycia Wright, who founded the Cultural Roots Co-Op in Richmond, Virginia, said she has seen the power of a home-schooling community firsthand. The co-op began in 2016 with about 15 families, but more than tripled to 50 families in 2020. Families pay a monthly fee of $250 and the co-op operates through donations and grants as well. The co-op functions both with parents serving as teachers and hiring teachers. Wright said the group recently received a grant from the VELA Education Fund and plans to purchase land to build a “forest school” for the co-op. And all this began with Wright resisting the loneliness of home-schooling.
“Co-ops are such a gift because it’s difficult to home-school in a silo, by yourself, without community. When you build the spaces you need, you’ll attract people who want the same thing,” Wright said. “I’ve found that people who stay on this journey of home-schooling are those who find community. ”