As schools begin reopening across the country, in Chicago, Angela Valentine says her 12-year-old son, Dorian, will not be returning. Instead, he will be home-schooled.
“I just began to see some telltale signs that things weren’t working to our advantage,” she said. “And started to see some discrepancies, some inequities.”
Some of those discrepancies involved her son’s academics. Valentine said that as Dorian’s grades slipped last year, before the coronavirus pandemic closed classrooms, his school failed to give him adequate support and solutions for subjects in which he was weak. Her son was one of only a few Black boys in his class, and he said his social interactions changed over time. Other students suddenly stopped playing with him. He told her that he spends recess on the swings by himself.
“We later found out that he was called the N-word,” Valentine said.
Bernita Bradley, an education advocate, said she has heard similar stories from parents in her hometown, Detroit.
When Detroit Public Schools shut down in the early stages of the pandemic, she noticed Black students’ being left behind and their parents’ being ignored by school administrators. Students, she said, did not have adequate resources, like laptops and Wi-Fi, while students in affluent neighborhoods already had needed resources. Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said last year that despite an effort to distribute 50,000 laptops and free internet service to students, the district experienced chronic absenteeism last fall. About 5 percent of the district’s students had broken laptops or did not have Wi-Fi connectivity at home. That led to chronic absenteeism — about 30 percent of students did not attend online classes.
“Families were crying out for help,” she said. “All parents kept getting was ‘Oh, this is a pandemic and be gracious and give us time.’ Not that it was perfect for anybody — it was a whole pandemic — but families just started tapping out. They were like, ‘If you won’t help me, I’ll do this myself.’”
And they did just that. Bradley became the point of contact for Black parents interested in home schooling. She received a $25,000 education grant from VELVA, which funds people and programs that are meeting students’ and families’ educational needs. She then launched Engaged Detroit, a home-school co-op that assists Black parents with educational resources.
Bradley also began home-schooling her 11th grade daughter, who was so frustrated with the local school system that she considered dropping out and getting her high school equivalency diploma.
“I was like, ‘No, you won’t,’” Bradley said. “‘You won’t drop out because other people are not accommodating you the right way.’”
Her daughter has graduated from high school and is attending Wayne State University.
Nationwide, Black parents are reporting their challenging experiences with their kids in public, private and charter schools, prompting many to reconsider their educational options. Data show that, facing racism at school, bias from some teachers and curriculums that parents deem inadequate, more Black families than ever are choosing to home-school their children. After a year of virtual or hybrid learning and the unknowns of a new school year during the pandemic, more parents see that route as the best option.
Brian Ray, a doctor of science education who founded the National Home Education Research Institute, said that over the past 15 years more Black parents have decided to home-school. In fact, according to an analysis by the organization in 2015, Black children made up just 1 percent of home-schoolers across the country in the late 1990s. By 2010, the proportion of Black families home-schooling their children nearly doubled, to 1.9 percent. According to a survey by the Census Bureau, 3.3 percent of Black families were home-schooling their children in spring 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic, but the figure jumped to 16.1 percent of Black children in the fall of 2020.
Ray’s study revealed a significant difference in academic achievement among Black home-school students. In 2015, 140 Black home-schooling families were given standardized tests. The tests were compared to those of more than 1,200 Black public school students, which showed that Black home-schoolers scored higher in reading, language and math. The home-schoolers’ scores were also equal to or higher than white public school students’ scores, on average.
Ray said he was not surprised. “When you put your child in an institution, the life of the child and the life of the family start to revolve around the institution rather than the education of the child,” he said.
Now, as schools reopen and students return to school, National Black Home Educators, a nonprofit organization, says it is preparing to meet the increasing needs of parents and students interested in home-schooling.
CEO Joyce Burges said the interest in her organization was “overwhelming.”
She said traffic on the organization’s website has grown exponentially in recent years and it works with more than 700 families directly, compared to just 30 when it began in 2000. The organization offers tools and resources to help parents navigate home schooling, while affirming students by providing a Black-focused curriculum.
“We are bringing a Black experience,” Burges said. Black history, literature and culture “should have never been left out,” she said, adding: “It should have never been invisible, but an older gentleman told me a long time ago, he said, ‘Joyce, the story’s going to be told according to the people who write the story, and Black Americans — we are writing this story … so this is the spirit of how we write our curriculum for families, and it’s a beautiful thing.”
Paula Penn-Nabrit documented her home-school experience in her books “Morning by Morning” and “As for My House.” She home-schooled her three sons with her husband, Charles Nabrit, in the 1990s. Their decision to home-school came out of necessity after an incident with her 4-year-old son, Charles Nabrit Jr., and his preschool teacher. Penn-Nabrit said that while the family was living in Jacksonville, Florida, she was called by her son’s teacher to immediately pick him up because he was not paying attention to a Hanukkah lesson. Penn-Nabrit learned that the teacher slapped Charles on the hand.
“He is 41 years old now, but when I think about it now, I get upset all over again,” Penn-Nabrit said. “She slapped my child.”
Black students are more consistently punished in schools and are given more severe punishments compared to white students who violate the same rules, according to the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights. Even among the youngest students, nearly 50 percent of preschool children who are suspended more than once are Black.
The teacher did not apologize, and the school did not reprimand her. Instead, Penn-Nabrit said, the teacher called her son the “most obnoxious human ever.”
While Penn-Nabrit said home-schooling comes with challenges, her sons went on to attend Ivy league colleges.
“Being home-schooled was a real challenge for our family in the ’90s,” her son Damon Nabrit said. “We argued about the efficacy of this adventure with our parents nearly every day. However, this experience offered a different educational path that prepared us not just for future academic rigor but, perhaps more importantly, to become Black men who were confident in ourselves while existing in a place that had little to no confidence in us.”
Dr. Myiesha Taylor, the real-life inspiration behind Disney’s Doc McStuffins, home-schooled her three children, as well.
Taylor’s son, who is just 15, is getting his master’s degree in business administration at Tarleton State University in Texas; her daughter entered Southern Methodist University Law School at 16; and her youngest, who is 13, is a sophomore at Texas Women’s University.
“I think that as Black parents or parents of Black children, we have a mindset that home school is not for us or it’s weird or maybe it’s Christian conservative — racist,” she said, “but I think that it offers an opportunity to explore a different method of educating our children that maybe Black parents didn’t consider.”
Taylor, an emergency room doctor, said her children are regular kids who simply had tailored educations. She offers advice in her book, “The Homeschool Alternative: Incorporating the Homeschool Mindset for the Benefit of Black Children in America.”
“We fought so long to be integrated and sit shoulder to shoulder with white students, and it’s such a badge of honor to our ancestors to be able to have this opportunity,” she said, but to then “throw it away,” as some might perceive it, might go “against what some people feel like what we should be doing as Black people.”
However, Taylor sees home schooling as a way to unlock the potential that traditional schools often fail to extend to Black children.
“When the predominantly white female teacher workforce tells you over and over again how they don’t believe in your child, without saying those words, maybe they discipline them more, they don’t understand them, they adulterize them, the curriculum erases them, it’s not affirming, the child doesn’t leave that environment feeling empowered — the microaggressions, the low-key and high-key bullying, the overt and covert racism — all that stuff our children deal with.”
Still, some parents and educators criticize home schooling. For example, last year in the Arizona Law Review, Harvard law professor Elizabeth Bartholet warned that a “lack of regulation in the homeschooling system poses a threat to children and society.” However, advocates like Taylor said home schooling, if done with deliberation, can allow parents to help their children reach their full potential.
“I think that we just defer all of this power that we have and influence that we have over our child, and building them up and forming the version of themselves in the world — we outsource that,” Taylor said. “That doesn’t even make any sense. We outsource it. Parents are kind of at a loss, and they don’t even consider the fact that they have more control than they realize.”
CORRECTION (Sept. 2, 2021, 12:55 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the last names of one of the families who home-schooled their children. The woman who documented her experience in two books is Paula Penn-Nabrit, not Paula Penn. Her husband is Charles Nabrit, and their son is Damon Nabrit; their last name is not Penn.