From religion to expense to basement classrooms, Black homeschoolers set the record straight about what home education is really like.
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Long before the current boom — back in October 1990 when Black folks thought it was “just a White Flight thing” — Joyce Burges started homeschooling her son. At 14 years old, he was pushed out of school only two months into the semester.
“They pretty much kicked us out,” says Burges, the CEO and founder of National Black Home Educators. While enrolled in a gifted school, her son’s GPA dropped from the school’s minimum requirement of 3.0 down to 2.8.
Fortunately for Burges, a family in her church was homeschooling, and they showed her the ropes: the legal aspects, curriculum options, and support groups. By the next school year, she had transferred her other child out of traditional school and was homeschooling both of them. Then she began helping out other parents, ultimately homeschooling seven children.
“Our vision is to share homeschooling and to put everything about homeschooling in the best possible light so that other families — specifically Black families — would see that is applicable for them,” Burges says.
‘Trying to Act Like White People’
While it might be changing now, there was a lot of stigma surrounding homeschooling in the 1990s and 2000s, especially for Black families.
When Burges started homeschooling, her parents didn’t understand what she was doing and were concerned her grandchildren wouldn’t get an education. She says they told her it wasn’t legal and she wasn’t qualified to teach.
“We didn’t see any other Black families at that time” homeschooling, Burges says. She was told, “we’re just trying to act like white people. It was like, no, we’re just trying to give our child the best education we can.”
Eventually, following the success her family experienced, several of Burges’ family members started homeschooling their own children.
Our vision is to share homeschooling and to put everything about homeschooling in the best possible light so that other families — specifically Black families — would see that is applicable for them. JOYCE BURGES, NATIONAL BLACK HOME EDUCATORS CEO AND FOUNDER
Jania Otey — who had been working as an attorney when she started homeschooling her two children — faced different criticisms. She got comments about paying for school and giving up rewarding work to “stay home.” She also got questions about whether she was sure she could do it and how her kids were going to socialize.
“I took them with a grain of salt. I answered people’s questions,” Otey says. “And I’m telling you, I would not trade that for anything in the world. It’s the best experience.”
The stigma isn’t as prominent today, Burges says, because homeschooling is “acceptable and sophisticated.” Plus, there is some research that shows homeschooled students tend to perform better in terms of GPA and national assessments, though it’s important to note the studies have a limited sample size. And homeschooling allows reprieve from bullying, socialization issues, or other non-academic struggles that distract from the learning process.
“Now, everybody knows somebody that’s homeschooling or who has homeschooled,” Burges says. “I would venture to say that they’re not going to receive the same attitudes and dispositions that we received.”
Most People Have Wrong Notions About Homeschooling
Movies often portray homeschoolers as anti-social, highly religious kids who sit at home in their pajamas all day. And that bothers real homeschoolers. Here are the myths homeschoolers and experts want to set the record straight on.
Religious Extremism: When she first started researching Black homeschooling families, Dr. Cheryl Fields-Smith knew of the stereotype that homeschooling was so parents with extreme religious backgrounds could let their beliefs drive learning. “That does exist, but it’s not as prevalent as you would think,” Fields-Smith says. What she found was that Black parents wanted to infuse something else. “It’s really most of their voices. The voices of Black home educators really give us an opportunity to hear the lived experiences behind the statistics.”
Staying at Home: “Homeschool” shouldn’t be taken so literally. Otey would conduct classes outside on a blanket or do a lesson in the grocery store. Erica Reynolds, 19, was homeschooled her entire K-12 education and recalls many museum trips full of hands-on activities. When she tells people she was homeschooled, “the reaction is, ‘Oh, wow, you’re so lucky. You got to stay at home all day,’” Reynolds says. “I wish I could do that, but it’s not really like that.”
Parents Are the Only Teachers: Parents generally aren’t the sole teacher. Whether it’s through programs, tutors, or groups, homeschooled kids often learn from many people. “You can be your child’s primary teacher for every single subject — if you choose,” Otey says, “or you can outsource instruction for certain subjects that you may not feel as comfortable with.”
The Kids Are Anti-Social: Most homeschoolers carry on “deep, intellectual conversations because they’ve been exposed to things other than just textbooks,” Otey says. When they go to playgrounds or other outings, children run up and interact. “Children are magnets for each other.”
It’s Expensive: Homeschooling curriculums vary in cost, so you can spend as much or as little as you want. Looking at the same time period across all three years of the pandemic — May in 2020, 2021, and 2022 — the majority of homeschooling families had an annual household income under $75,000, according to Census Bureau data. “There are lots of free resources out there. You might have to put a little more work into them in terms of printing things out and creating some things yourself,” Otey says. “It really depends on what you want to budget, how you want to spend your money. So I don’t think that should be a barrier.”
Throughout the pandemic, homeschooling has been most common among households with an annual income under $75,000.
Source: U.S. Census Bureau
The Good and Bad of Homeschooling
The first thing Caleb Otey, 16, and Reynolds want you to know is that they have social lives. They both had classes or partook in programs with other groups of kids, and Caleb played basketball for a couple of years. Reynolds was “really involved” in the Boys and Girls Club, and she did internships at different museums in Washington, D.C., helping to plan programs, take photos and video, and create commercials.
Being able to create her own schedule allowed Reynolds to fit in more extracurriculars — and it also prepared her for college.
“It felt seamless,” Reynolds, a junior at North Carolina A&T State University, says. “It was an easy transition” from homeschooling because “you’re not really taking classes at home — it’s usually in another establishment — and you pick your own schedule.”
For Caleb, the college prep aspect was being able to set habits he now uses at Faulkner University. He remembers getting up when it was still dark so he could finish school early enough in the day to have more free time.
“That really helped me with my school now because I have a lot more work to do now,” Caleb says. “[My mom] helped me form the habit of getting up early and getting things done.”
But the downsides do exist. For one, there are “concerns that removing students from traditional schooling models will continue to segregate students along racial and economic lines,” Dr. Javaid Siddiqi, president and CEO of The Hunt Institute, wrote in a statement to Word In Black.
Siddiqi says homeschooling isn’t effective for all children, and it can keep students from being exposed to a diverse group of peers. Plus, homeschooling can lead to inconsistencies in educational outcomes based on a variety of factors.
“Parents with little to no background in education or childcare may struggle with putting together a well-rounded curriculum for their child,” Siddiqi says.
The Effects of Homeschooling on the Education Landscape
The pandemic dramatically impacted how students, families, and educators approach schooling. So what kind of long-term effect will homeschooling have on traditional schools?
The 2020-2021 school year — the first full pandemic school year — saw a 63% increase in homeschooling, according to an analysis by The Associated Press of data from 18 states. It dropped only 17% in the following school year, 2021-2022, when many schools were holding in-person classes. Prior to the pandemic, only 3% of students were homeschooled nationwide, according to the Census Bureau.
This highlights that “many families have decided not to return to the classrooms,” opting instead for flexible scheduling and other ways of “reimagining student learning,” Siddiqi says. At least for the short term.
“The growth of these alternative models is likely to continue to challenge existing norms about educational systems,” Siddiqi says.
The growth of these alternative models is likely to continue to challenge existing norms about educational systems. DR. JAVAID SIDDIQI, THE HUNT INSTITUTE PRESIDENT AND CEO
Fields-Smith has spent 17 years studying Black homeschoolers — and has even testified before a State Board of Education when it needed to update its homeschool policies. She says when a community sees that homeschooling is increasing, meaning that the number of children going to public school would decrease, districts and states have to look at their policies.
“My hope is that public schools and private schools alike would listen to Black parents and see what’s working for their children and try to adapt it, if possible,” Fields-Smith says.
And, Siddiqi adds, that “growing parental dissatisfaction” with the current system will force district and state leaders to “work together to support evidence-driven policies that will rebuild public trust in our schools.”
But what does that mean for the short term? Not much.
“I don’t know how it’s changing right now,” Fields-Smith says. “I don’t know that it is changing very much here in America. Schools seem to be still doing what they do.”