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Vanessa Oden (Photo by Gary Fong/Genesis)

Educational pioneers

Education | African-American homeschooling is on the rise

Issue: "All tied up," Sept. 24, 2011

Californian Vanessa Oden remembers the day homeschooling paid off. Her 4-year-old daughter looked at her and admitted that she loved her teacher. "I didn't know who she was talking about. I thought maybe her ballet teacher, Sunday school teacher, and then she said, 'You-you're my favorite teacher. I love your school.'"

Before homeschooling, Oden spent years teaching numerous grades and subjects in both public and private schools. She calls education "her thing" and loves teaching. But then she found herself with less freedom-"times in class when my hands were tied"-and fewer resources, with administrators saying she needed to teach children merely to pass state tests. She observed bullying, teen sex in school bathrooms, and teacher bias. Parents begged her to take children who were being left behind into her class: "There were some children who couldn't count to 10."

Some kindergartners did well and Oden noticed them: They could read and write. They were independent and well-behaved. She kept digging and eventually found the common thread-the ones doing well were the ones who had been homeschooled. "First I was against it," she admits. "I thought only teachers who were trained professionals should be teaching children." That changed when the time came for Oden to place her own children in school-and she realized she didn't want them there. Then she was laid off and had the time and resources to try something new.

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She and her husband chose to homeschool, joining the ranks of 100,000 homeschooling African-American and multi-ethnic families. Cultural myths in many multi-ethnic communities have classified homeschooling as for "white people" only, but moms' stories from Arizona to Harlem suggest that homeschooling is an option for everyone.

Tomeka Colenburg from Arizona has no teaching certificate, but this is her second year of homeschooling. She remembers the moment she chose to homeschool. Students bullied her youngest at school, so Colenburg asked for help: "The principal had a nonchalant attitude. One of her responses was, 'I have over 2,000 in this school. I can't concentrate on one child every day.' That's when I looked at her and realized I would have to step up and do my part." After researching homeschooling for a year, she narrowed her Google search to "African-American Homeschoolers in Arizona." There were none.

Why look for African-American homeschoolers, and not just homeschoolers? "Coming from an African-American standpoint, it's literally a culture shock to your own people," Colenburg explained. For her, finding people with similar cultural backgrounds was important: "It's always good to have someone to relate to ... who has gone through the same negativity and criticism." She also remembers when she told her family she would homeschool: "They looked at me like I was crazy." Nevertheless, she began, and is now-with the help of a friend-writing her own curriculum.

Colenburg says support networks gave her the "extra push" to keep going for the first, and most difficult, six months of her children's transition from public school to home education. Now she is the Arizona representative for National Black Home Educators (NBHE), a network founded by Joyce Burges and her husband 10 years ago. Louisiana resident Burges has watched home education become more popular in the African-American community for practical reasons such as family togetherness, safety, and academic performance.

Burges started homeschooling 20 years ago after her son's grades dropped and administrators at the private school "advised" the parents either to hold him back a grade or move him to another school. Since then, she's homeschooled all four of her children. Her youngest, Elizabeth, who runs two businesses and is a competitive golfer, will graduate at 16.

The couple started NBHE to bridge the gap between mainstream homeschooling resources and black families that want to home educate, but are intimidated by the racial homogeneity in many homeschooling environments. "African-Americans aren't going to come to an all-white organization," Burges explained frankly. "If they do come they're going to look for connection or familiarity." That's where NBHE comes in as a transition organization, helping ethnic families connect to mainstream resources and to each other, but also helping home education groups to connect to ethnic families.

Some parents make it without a support network: In Harlem, Dionne Hughes found everything she needed through online research. The middle-aged Virginia native had headed north to pursue acting. She made time to run a successful hair salon, adjust to New York City, and homeschool her son, Cleveland, all as a single mom. She turned to homeschooling after noticing his grades drop: "He was easily distracted, the classroom settings were pretty large, he faced a lot of peer pressure trying to fit in with the children from New York and was having a hard time respecting authority."

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