Homeschooling Has Become More Popular Among Black Families

For Shari Rohan, it was a social-studies lesson that described enslaved people receiving “on-the-job training.” For Zanetta Lamar, it was the fact that her son was the only Black student in his grade. Andrea Thomas was struck by how little she learned about Black history in both private and public school.

“I did not want my children to have that same experience,” says Thomas, who, along with Rohan and Lamar, is now homeschooling her children, becoming part of a movement that once was seen as the domain of white, conservative families. “I wanted them to have a deeper understanding of history and the flaws within our history.”

Homeschooling increased nationwide after the pandemic disrupted in-person learning; among households with school-age children, the percentage who reported homeschooling them rose from 5.4% in April 2020 to 11.1% in October 2020, the last week for which those figures are available, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey. This was especially true for Black families who homeschooled 3.3% in spring 2020. The survey found that 16.1% homeschooled by fall 2020. As this population grows, so do the resources available and support groups.

Learn more Inside the Fight Over What Kids Learn About America’s History

While COVID-19 was a catalyst, many Black parents, concerned about racism in schools and frustrated by the prevalence of white-washed history lessons, have also turned to homeschooling as a way to take control of their children’s education and give them an unvarnished version of U.S. history, even as such efforts come under attack in school districts around the country.

“Homeschooling has become such a refuge for many families, Black families in particular, that they don’t have to go to the under-resourced school that they were assigned,” says Cheryl Fields-Smith, an associate professor at the University of Georgia’s Mary Frances Early College of Education, who has researched homeschooling among Black families. “They have an option where someone can create for them a really positive, nurturing, learning environment.”

The challenges faced by Black children in America’s public schools are well-documented. Black students receive discipline at a higher rate than white classmates. Districts with predominantly Black or Latino students are more financially supported than districts serving mostly white students. Black students won’t be taught by Black educators as only 7% in the public school teachers are Black. Many school districts now face calls to take books written by Black authors out of school libraries, and restrict the way teachers can discuss race in class.

“If you send your child to school, and those ideals are there, you have to rescue them in a way,” says Fields-Smith. “Out of frustration, they realize, ‘You know what, I can do a better job than this.’”

Thomas, whose children range in age from 4 to 12, recalls visiting her daughter’s first-grade private-school classroom a few years ago for a Thanksgiving activity that painted a rosy picture of the relationship between pilgrims and Native Americans. “I thought, ‘Oh, I’m doing my child a disservice,’” she says. “That’s obviously wrong.”

Thomas began teaching at her Richardson, Texas home in 2020. She has been using a U.S. History curriculum from Woke Homeschooling since then. This platform was created by Delina McPhaull who had difficulty finding a good history curriculum when she began homeschooling almost 10 years ago. The majority of U.S. history curriculums had a conservist bent. These included religious teachings, and heavily emphasized the views of U.S. historians.

“I got tired of reading about white people, white people’s experience,” says Pryce McPhaull, who is Black and has always homeschooled her children, 12-year-old twins and a 14-year-old. “You get tired of the same perspective the whole time.”

She crafted her own curriculum, marking up her children’s textbooks, researching alternative readings, removing a lesson involving the Confederate anthem, “Dixie,” and adding a lesson about “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” long considered the Black national anthem.

The curriculum was made public by her in 2019 and offered as a digital download to parents. She wanted to provide the necessary tools for them to navigate through difficult discussions about hard realities. More than 2500 curriculum downloads were received in August 2020 as compared with 300 for August 2019, which she attributes to the surge in homeschooling in the aftermath of the Pandemic, and to the increasing focus on systemic racism since George Floyd’s passing. Her U.S. history curriculum for the third- to seventh graders costs $50, and her high-school curriculum comes in two parts for $60 each, all promising to make the history of Native Americans, African Americans and immigrants “more than an after-thought.” More than 700 families have enrolled in Woke Homeschooling online courses since September 2020, she says.

“I like to say, ‘Let’s tell the truth and see what happens.’ Because we haven’t been telling the truth,” she says. “We haven’t, as a nation, as a whole, grappled with history in a truthful way. Some parents have determined that we’re going to do this differently.”

History of homeschooling

The fact that Pryce McPhaull couldn’t find many curriculum options that weren’t written from a conservative, Christian perspective, and that her lesson plans have generated so much interest, reflects the changing demographics of homeschooling.

Left-leaning parents were more in line with 1960s counterculture than the early homeschooling wave. Educator John Holt coined the term “unschooling.” Holt advocated for child-directed learning and less emphasis on testing, and he encouraged families to leave the public school system in favor of less rigid styles of education.

But during the 1980s and ‘90s, homeschooling became a more conservative movement, overlapping with conservative ideals about limited government, parental rights and religious freedom.

Republican presidential candidates began to appeal to parents who homeschooled to get political support. In 1983, the Home School Legal Defense Association was established to lobby legislators and offer legal assistance to families fighting to protect their rights to homeschool.

Heath Brown is an associate professor of Public Policy at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and has researched the history of conservative activism surrounding homeschooling. He found that about 60% of those who self-identified as homeschool parents supported Donald Trump’s election in 2016. However, this trend is slowly changing as more homeschooling parents identify themselves as moderates, which was made possible by the pandemic.

According to NCES, the number of students who were homeschooled nearly doubled between 1999 and 2016. Nearly 1.7 million of them, or 3.3%, of all students in the country, attended homeschooling. About 59 percent of the students who were homeschooled were white. 26% were Hispanic while 8% were Black. Most homeschoolers cited dissatisfaction with the academic environment and desire to teach religion as their main reasons for choosing to homeschool.

Today’s increase in homeschooling can be seen across all races. According to Census survey data, 12.1% of Hispanic homes and 9.7% white ones grew to 10.3% in October 2020.

White parents made the decision to move to homeschooling as part of the criticisms to critical race theory. They object to the way racism is presented in public schools. Aly Giles, who is white and lives in Tennessee, said she thinks public schools have become too liberal, and she didn’t want her son “to feel guilty for a past that he had nothing to do with.” Giles started homeschooling her three school-aged children in 2020. “I can’t change the whole public school system, but what I can do is take my kids out of it,” she said.

Critique of race theory, a framework for academic research at the graduate level that examines racism in institutions. While it was never taught in K-12 schools across the nation, it became a common term for critics who claim it will cause children to feel uncomfortable and divide.

Brown says homeschooling parents have long been motivated by a desire for more control over their children’s curriculum. “That includes the choice of textbooks, the choice of subject matter,” he says. Black parents are currently pursuing more comprehensive, diverse history education.

‘I could not send her back there’

Shari Rohan reached a breaking point with her daughter Sofia’s public school in June 2020, when she was able to see and hear what Sofia, who is biracial, was learning in fourth grade in Watervliet, N.Y. Rohan was concerned about one assignment that described enslaved people receiving “on-the-job training” and another that described the United States as a “blue-eyed and ready nation.”

“These lessons add to the complete erasure of the atrocities faced by Native and Black people throughout history. I would like to know what the school is doing to encourage accurate language and portrayal of historical events,” Rohan wrote in an email to her daughter’s elementary-school principal, who said she would work with staff to rewrite their curriculum and “increase our understanding of race and racism.” But for Rohan, the response seemed like too little, too late.

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“Seeing the actual curriculum, and the response from the school to that curriculum, just made it ethically impossible for me to send her back,” says Rohan, who began homeschooling Sofia, now 11, in September 2020. “I’m a single parent, and I work outside the home. But I could not send her back there.”

In an email, Donald Stevens, superintendent of Watervliet schools, acknowledged that the material used as part of those assignments was “inappropriate.” “The material and its use is not reflective of our commitment as educators and as a school district to educational equity for all students,” he said, adding that the district has been reviewing its curriculum to “ensure it reflects our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion” and is creating a resource bank for teachers with materials that are “reflective of all demographics and backgrounds.”

“We are determined to continue to move forward to ensure an equitable educational experience for all,” he said.

At home, Rohan has prioritized lessons on the Black Panthers’ community work and Rosa Parks’ training as an activist. She taught her daughter about the history of colonization in the U.S. and how the country’s Founding Fathers were also slave owners, centering diverse perspectives with each lesson.

“That history is so important to understand why everything is happening today,” Rohan says. “Without that history, an accurate history, this is why we are where we are.”

Odori Pendleton, a Fredericksburg teacher, was in Fredericksburg for eleven years. She then started homeschooling her children (now 8 and 12), in 2017, after seeing too many instances of Black children mistreated at school.

Pendleton was determined to get her kids out of that setting, particularly after her son was diagnosed as having autism and ADHD. “They’re going to see him as a troubled Black boy before they see that he is actually a savant,” she thought.

Many parents who are now taking control of their children’s education are also motivated by a desire to make sure their kids are learning more than they did in school.

“I remember feeling as though Black history was boxed in. We talked about slavery and civil rights, and that’s it,” says Kerai Riddle, a mother in Illinois who started homeschooling her three children in October 2020. She complained to her 12-year old daughter that Black History Month was a time when she learned about Martin Luther King, Jr., rather than other notable Black leaders.

Riddle taught Ida B to her daughter recently. Wells, a Black journalist who campaigned against lynching, someone she suspects her daughter wouldn’t have learned about in a traditional classroom.

Pryce McPhaull was the founder of Woke Homeschooling. She realized that the curriculum was needed after she participated in a 2015 racial justice study team. It became apparent how many things her public school education left out. It was the Civil War’s Reconstruction period that she knew very little about. And while she was familiar with the term “Jim Crow,” she knew little about the many laws that had enforced segregation.

As her children faced ongoing incidents of racism and violence in the United States, she wanted them to better understand how racism has shaped American history.

“This isn’t just something happening out of the blue. This isn’t an anomaly,” says Pryce McPhaull, who lives in Keene, Texas. “It was important for my kids to have that historical context.”

In spite of the negative reaction to her state’s critical race theory, she is grateful for homeschooling. Texas Governor. Greg Abbott has said he wants to “abolish critical race theory.” A new Texas law aims to restrict how teachers discuss race, gender and other issues in the classroom. It says public school teachers “may not be compelled to discuss a widely debated and currently controversial issue of public policy or social affairs” and requires representatives from every school to attend a training program on how to teach about race and racism.

The state’s politicians and parents are also conservative and have launched an initiative to ban books from schools libraries that feature LGBTQ characters and/or deal with racism.

“They’re basically banning anything that might make white students feel uncomfortable,” Pryce McPhaull says. “When I hear that, I’m reminded of when I was in third, fourth grade, learning about the slave trade in my history class. In the class, I was the Black only child or one of the two Black students. I didn’t have a Black teacher until I was in college. In that environment, I was uncomfortable learning about the slave trade with everyone’s eyes on me. I remember that feeling distinctly.”

Her children were taught about slavery by her mother. She engaged them in their questions and asked how they felt.

“We don’t shy away from hard truths,” she says. “It doesn’t disappear if we don’t study it.”

‘We can’t remove them from America’

At the same time, not all problems can be solved by removing children from schools that aren’t serving them.

Zanetta Lamar (from Naples, Fla.) sent Cory Lamar’s son to both public and private schools, before sending him back to homeschool. “I thought if I paid a lot of money and put him in private school, I could pay someone to treat him well,” Zanetta Lamar says. She was 6 years old when her son knew about racism. He was also aware of the dangers associated with COVID-19.

“It almost was the concern of what could happen,” she says. “We’re just trying to protect our kids.”

Her husband and she are both doctors, and she resigned in January to full-time homeschool her 10-year old son and 6-year old daughter. And while they’re happy with their decision, they know it won’t solve every problem.

“We can’t remove them from America,” Zanetta Lamar says.

However, not all parents have the opportunity to homeschool their kids. Cory Lamar has dedicated himself to the education of his children. Zanetta Lamar still works full time and is able financially to support her family using one income. Rohan, a nurse instructor who can’t work from home, hired an au pair to look after her daughter during the day. While her husband works full-time, Thomas runs a business from home and has built her schedule to accommodate her children’s schooling, starting work at 5:30 a.m. so she can begin homeschool lessons by 10 a.m. For some families with less work flexibility and financial stability, that wouldn’t be possible.

“What I really hope is that, ultimately, public schools, districts, boards of ed, state boards of ed will take notice, and start to listen to what’s missing in our schools for Black children,” says Fields-Smith, the University of Georgia professor. “We can’t just do what we’ve always done. We must make some changes.”

Learn more What Schools Can Learn from Anti-Asian Violence, the Pandemic, and Other History Lessons

Thomas, the mother in Richardson, says there are days when it’s difficult juggling “five different kids, five different personalities, five different grade levels.” But she has also found it refreshing to learn alongside her children, teaching them to ask questions about what they learn, to think about whose perspective it comes from and to fact-check the things they’re told.

She tried to correct what she had taught her children about Thanksgiving. In November, she discussed the Native American tribes who lived in this area first, and how they were affected by colonists’ violence and disease. She believes that if more children can understand this, then it could change how the country they live in.

“We are feeding the next generation,” she says. “What are we feeding them?”

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