Homeschooling Among African-American Families Is On the Rise

PHOTO CREDIT: ashida s. mar b./Flickr
PHOTO CREDIT: ashida s. mar b./Flickr

Marvell Robinson was in kindergarten when a classmate reportedly poured an anthill on him at the playground. After that, the gibes reportedly became sharper: “Why are you that color?” one boy taunted at the swing set, leaving Marvell scared and speechless. The slow build of racial bullying would push his mother, Vanessa Robinson, to pull him from his public school and homeschool him instead.

Marvell is one of an estimated 220,000 African American children currently being homeschooled, according to the National Home Education Research Institute. Black families have become one of the fastest-growing demographics in homeschooling, with black students making up an estimated 10 percent of the homeschooling population. (For comparison’s sake, they make up 16 percent of all public-school students nationwide, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.)

And while white homeschooling families traditionally cite religious or moral disagreements with public schools in their decision to pull them out of traditional classroom settings, studies indicate black families are more likely to cite the culture of low expectations for African American students or dissatisfaction with how their children—especially boys—are treated in schools.

Marvell, now 7 and in the second grade, was the only black student in both his kindergarten and first-grade classes, and one of only a few black students in his San Diego elementary school, according to his mother. And Marvell’s Asperger syndrome—a high-functioning form of autism that makes social interaction difficult—only added to the curiosity and cruelty with which his fellow classmates approached him, Robinson added. She was concerned the school wasn’t doing enough about it. “I just thought maybe I could do a better job myself,” she said.

“They said, ‘kids will be kids,’ and the only solution was for Marvell to be monitored—like he had done something wrong,” Robinson said. “In the end, I don’t think that anyone should have to monitor my kid” because of other kids’ behavior.

Robinson allowed Marvell to finish first grade there and began homeschooling him when he started second grade in September. Robinson adjusted her nursing schedule to include 12-hour shifts on the weekends so she could take on educating Marvell during the week. Her husband, a sous chef at a restaurant in downtown San Diego, continues to work full-time and participates in lessons when he can.

And while her primary motivation was giving Marvell individualized attention, Robinson was unable to separate her worries about racial bullying from the decision. “If he hadn’t been bullied I would have really looked into transferring schools, or going back to where I grew up in Kansas,” she said. “At least in Kansas it was more racially diverse. I assumed that’s how the schools would be in San Diego, but I was wrong.”

Robinson likely joins hundreds of other African American parents who’ve decided to homeschool their children because of dissatisfaction with the traditional campuses. Indeed, Joyce Burges at National Black Home Educators has watched her membership grow “exponentially” in the 15 years since the organization was founded, a trend also reflected in Marvell’s home state of California. While Burges’s national conferences in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, used to attract only around 50 people, they now attract upwards of 400, she said—a noteworthy number for the first organization for black homeschoolers in a sea of predominantly white organizations.

Research conducted by Marie-Josée Cérol—known professionally as Ama Mazama—also offers insight into the growing trend. A faculty member in the African American Studies department at Temple University in Philadelphia, Mazama began homeschooling her three children 12 years ago and realized quickly that there was little research on black homeschoolers.

“Whenever there are mentions of African American homeschoolers, it’s assumed that we homeschool for the same reasons as European-American homeschoolers, but this isn’t really the case,” she said. “Because of the unique circumstances of black people in this country, there is really a new story to be told.”

In a 2012 report published in the Journal of Black Studies, Mazama surveyed black homeschooling families from around the country and found that most chose to educate their children at home at least in part to avoid school-related racism. Mazama calls this rationale “racial protectionism” and said it is a response to the inability of schools to meet the needs of black students. “We have all heard that the American education system is not the best and is falling behind in terms of international standards,” she said. “But this is compounded for black children, who are treated as though they are not as intelligent and cannot perform as well, and therefore the standards for them should be lower.”

Mazama said schools also rob black children of the opportunity to learn about their own culture because of a “Euro-centric” world-history curriculum. “Typically, the curriculum begins African American history with slavery and ends it with the Civil Rights Movement,” she said. “You have to listen to yourself simply being talked about as a descendent of slaves, which is not empowering. There is more to African history than that.” Mazama’s studies show that black parents who choose to homeschool often teach a comprehensive view of African history by incorporating more detailed descriptions of ancient African civilizations and accounts of successful African people throughout history. This allows children to “build their sense of racial pride and self esteem,” she said.

Meanwhile, Cheryl Fields-Smith, an associate professor in the department of Educational Theory and Practice at the University of Georgia, has in her own studies found similar motivations among black homeschoolers. “The schools want little black boys to behave like little white girls, and that’s just never going to happen. They are different,” she said. “I think black families who are in a position to homeschool can use homeschooling to avoid the issues of their children being labeled ‘trouble makers’ and the suggestion that their children need special-education services because they learn and behave differently.”

What it means to be “in a position to homeschool” has long been a question in the homeschooling community. According to Mazama, regardless of race, homeschooling families tend to be wealthier and better educated because they must have the economic ability to have one parent stay home full time. Home education, she added, is “not a middle-class phenomenon.”

However, both Mazama and Fields-Smith say this is beginning to change; barriers that in the past might have left homeschooling out of the question for many working-class families are being lifted. Greater access to public-education resources is making homeschooling more appealing, too. Mazama pointed to the availability of subsidies ensuring homeschooled children have access to standard public-school nutritional offerings, for example, and public programs allowing homeschooled students to enroll in extracurricular activities and after-school sports as reasons why families are increasingly seeing homeschooling as a valid alternative to traditional education. In fact, Fields-Smith is in the process of writing a book on black, single homeschooling mothers because she sees “more and more families of less means” making the decision to sacrifice traditional career paths so that they can pull their children from school.

Rhonda McKnight would be an archetypical candidate for Fields-Smith’s book. As a single mother, she works about 45 hours per week as a contractor for the state of Georgia—often at odd hours and during the weekend—so she can homeschool her 8-year-old son, Micah. “It’s not easy,” McKnight said. “It’s extremely difficult to balance everything.” While a common criticism of homeschooling is a potential lack of socialization for children, Mazama said the growing number of homeschooling groups solves this problem. McKnight for her part joined a homeschooling collective that, in addition to providing Micah time with other children, also helps her manage her workload. The group gathers on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays to engage in extracurricular and hands-on learning activities that can’t easily be done in the home, giving McKnight some time to herself—and, of course, some time to work.

Micah, who like Marvell is autistic, didn’t learn well in a classroom with 25 students. McKnight also felt as though his teacher was misinterpreting the symptoms of his disability as behavioral problems and accusing him of “behavior that was not typical to him.” “I don’t know how racially motivated it was at the time,” McKnight said. “But even black teachers are taught certain things they are not even aware of. Our culture tends towards labeling our boys.”

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SOURCE: The Atlantic, Jessica Huseman