Tsadae Neway and her 13-year-old daughter, Yahshimabet Sellassie, are trying homeschooling.
An increasing number of African-American families say traditional schools have failed them.
Before his son entered the first grade, Travis considered him to be a bright and happy child. But not long after enrolling him in public school, Travis noticed a change in his son’s behavior.
“He wouldn’t sit down. He would be doing really weird things. He would say things like, ‘This is hard. I don’t get it. I need help.’ And I didn’t know where it was coming from,” said the 45-year-old father of two, who lives in the East Bay but did not want to reveal his exact location or his last name for privacy reasons.
Travis said that when he went to his son’s school to observe what was happening, he noticed that “the teacher was teaching to the front of the class,” yet his son and other black boys were seated in the back of the class. There were other problems, too, such as the lack of textbooks and the fact that the teacher spent most of the day yelling at the kids. The situation did not improve. By the time his son reached the third grade, Travis realized he hadn’t learned anything in the prior two years. “That was it,” he said. “I was fed up.”
Travis and his wife looked into private schools, but they were too expensive. The solution? Homeschooling.
Once largely associated with white families seeking to impart their religious values to their children, homeschooling is increasingly the choice for black families who, like Travis, say the public schools have failed them. In the last 15 years, homeschooling has grown rapidly among African Americans, according to Brian Ray, an independent homeschooling researcher in Salem, Ore. He estimates that of the 2.3 million homeschooled students in the United States, about 184,000 to 230,000, or 8 to 10 percent, are African American.
“I think people are tired. I think people aren’t getting what they want or what their children need,” explained Irene Tucker, a homeschooling mother who, along with her husband, runs the National Black Home Educators. Tucker lives in Alabama, but her organization’s members are around the country. “I think the difference between African-American homeschoolers and white homeschoolers, African Americans aren’t homeschooling because they’re lifelong homeschoolers. They’re homeschooling because they need something for a particular child. With white people who homeschool, usually it’s a cause for them. For black people, it’s a means to an end. They’re trying to accomplish a goal.”
For Tsadae Neway, the goal is to empower her 13-year-old daughter, Yahshimabet Sellassie. Neway said her daughter wanted to leave Oakland’s Park Day School and be homeschooled for her upcoming eighth-grade year for several reasons, including that she was constantly having to question the curriculum’s Eurocentric point of view and was being treated as “the spokesperson for the African diasporic experience.”
“I think she always felt frustrated, like, ‘Why am I the only person who thinks this is wrong? I’m tired of even my teachers not getting it,’ ” Neway said.
Yahshimabet also runs her own baking business and was a finalist on the second season of the Food Network’s “Kids Baking Championship.” While Neway said she didn’t pull her daughter out of school because of her growing business, she thinks homeschooling will provide a better platform for her to “root herself and her passion.”
“I want her to be more in her power and be around people who understand her, where she doesn’t have to be so defensive,” said Neway. “My goal with homeschooling is to shape her education in a way that she desires.”
That doesn’t mean that Neway is ruling out regular schools, however. She said her daughter hopes to attend a private high school next year. Neway’s two younger children are attending public school in the fall, although she may decide to homeschool them as well.
There’s no single approach to homeschooling. For Travis’ kids, it resembles a kind of independent study. They’re both enrolled in a free online public school through the site K12.com, which involves regular meetings with a teacher both online and in person.
Travis said he acts as more like a “learning coach,” ensuring that his kids stay on track with their homework.
Gillian Ashworth, who is white and whose son is mixed race but identifies as black, enrolled her son in a homeschool charter called Visions in Education five years ago. “It’s really flexible,” she said. “They assign you a credentialed teacher, and you meet with them once a month. But the lesson plans are up to you. If you need help, they’ll help.”
One of the benefits of homeschooling is that, in addition to all the usual subjects taught in a regular school, it also allows parents to teach their children what they think is important. All of the parents interviewed for this article said incorporating a more complete view of history, with a greater understanding of black people’s contributions to society, was a pivotal aspect of their homeschooling. “If we isolated the accomplishments of white people to one month, it would be seen as ridiculous, but that’s what we do to black children, and that’s part of the reason we fail so terribly,” said Tucker.
According to recent research, black children who are homeschooled are excelling academically. A 2015 study conducted by Brian Ray found that black homeschooled students scored 23 to 42 percentile points above their black public school peers. They also scored better than their white public school counterparts. Ray attributes this to the individualized attention the students receive from their parents. The fact that they score so much higher, he said, “is not shocking.”
While Tucker said she thinks every child could benefit from parent-led, home-based education, she realizes that not every child can. Homeschooling usually requires two parents, with one staying at home. But beyond that, there’s no large financial commitment required to homeschool. “If you have internet and a local library, you can homeschool your kid for virtually nothing,” she said.
In addition to lack of time and energy, there’s another obstacle to getting more black parents to homeschool—fear. “I really think that the American government has ingrained in us that education is the key to end your mistreatment, and only white people can educate you,” Travis said. “I think a lot of people are afraid to homeschool their children, especially black families. Or some people may say they don’t have enough education to homeschool their own children. Maybe they think they will fail.”
Travis acknowledges that he, too, was fearful. In fact, he likened taking his children out of the public school system to “breaking them out of jail.” Yet, he said, “even though I was afraid to homeschool my children, my entrepreneur spirit led me to believe I could do it.”
For those who need more encouragement, the National Black Home Educators holds an annual conference for homeschooling parents. It hasn’t happened for the last couple of years, but Tucker said she hopes to organize one in 2017 in Atlanta, where there is a large black homeschooling community. She also wants to form support groups around the country to convince more black families that they can—and should—homeschool their children. The benefit, she says, is obvious.
“My kids are very clear about who they are,” she said. “And not because we’re better than somebody else, but [because we know] who we are and why.”
This report appears in the September edition of our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly.
Published online on Aug. 30, 2016 at 8 a.m.