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.
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."
Hughes settled on homeschooling, especially when she found an A Beka curriculum tailored for homeschoolers-her son had used the program before in a private school and she knew the familiarity would help. Later she discovered Keystone International Middle School, a program that reduced her workload, taught Cleveland to be independent, and freed her to run her salon while managing his progress.
Hughes, Colenburg, and Oden all pulled their children out of school, opting for home education-and it's working. So why aren't more African-American families keeping their children at home? Joyce Burges points to the history of desegregation: "A lot of black families believe the myth that white families wanted to pull their children out of the system ... a lot of blacks still have the stigma that homeschooling is a traitor's movement." Burges also points to money, saying that many black families don't homeschool because they think it's expensive. Many of them are single parents and not sure how to navigate homeschooling on one income. Some also fear that since they have no college degree, they can't teach their children.
But these parents have learned that homeschooling allows them to respond to the needs of their children. Hughes knows her son can't focus for long periods of time, so she's free to adjust the school schedule. Oden and Colenburg use local resources like museums, aquariums, and at-home gardens for class. They experience the learning process with their children. Oden recalls the day her children did well at reading. She applauded them, then recalls: "They turned to me and said, 'Mom, you taught us how to read.' That meant a lot to me."
They also found state regulations not as intimidating as they thought they would be. When Erica Baker, also in Harlem, started homeschooling, she said, "A lot of white people reached out to me and told me I could do it just like they could." Baker only had to file a letter of intent and keep up with state regulations. Colenburg followed a state program for testing until she realized she was exempt as a homeschool mom and was free to choose her own curriculum. These homeschoolers also like the freedom to highlight topics that matter to them. In Oden's at-home classroom, posters of the world, pictures of multi-ethnic heroes, and Bible verses decorate the wall.
I asked Dell Self, a homeschooling mom in Memphis who runs Ebony Homeschoolers, whether African-American support groups run the risk of being ethnically exclusive. After all, critics once ridiculed homeschooling for handicapping students socially and emotionally, saying they'd never be able to interact with other children. Might not this be a danger for families who insist on black-only support groups or curricula that specifically use dark-skinned characters? Maybe, but Self points out that ethnic homogeneity is just not possible. "Homeschooling is not an island," she says, meaning that in order to succeed, homeschoolers have to rely on each other, skin color aside.
Brian Ray, president of the National Home Education Research Institute in Salem, Ore., has monitored changes in homeschooling over the past 15 years. He says homeschooling is increasingly straying from past stereotypes and becoming more diverse: "There has been a clear and consistent broadening and deepening in the variety of people homeschooling." Ray says the academic, social, and emotional success of homeschooled students is now generally accepted by the public, including more black families.
In Arizona, Colenburg has learned that homeschooling is difficult but doable. She almost gave up during her first year, after months of exhaustion. Her children fluctuated between enjoying learning at home and wanting to be back with their friends-but Colenburg urges first-time homeschool parents not to give up. In Harlem, Baker agrees: "It's a really intimate experience with your child. ... I wouldn't have it any other way."
When Esther Sawyer hosted a Bible club at her Philadelphia house several years ago, she realized the fourth- and fifth-grade kids couldn't write a full sentence: "The Philadelphia public school system was at least a grade behind academically. It scared me." But she couldn't afford to send her kids to a private Christian school until she discovered Faith First Educational Assistance, a tiny organization offering scholarships to financially needy K-12 students in Pennsylvania and Virginia.
Faith First gave out 79 small scholarships last year that ranged from $529 to $1,071, but its founder, Alberta Wilson, has big dreams: "Even a $500 scholarship can make the difference between a child remaining in a school or having to be withdrawn."
At 16, Wilson could have been just another statistic. She was pregnant and failed 10th grade twice. Her mom was an alcoholic. Her dad never satisfied her longing for spiritual leadership. She dabbled in Islam, New Age, Catholicism, and the hippie movement. After her daughter Kentina was born deaf in 1971, Wilson enrolled in a work-study program at a Philadelphia naval hospital and earned her GED.
In 1976 she professed faith in Christ: "I'd love to say that everything was peaches and cream from then on, but it was not. The one thing that did change was that the Lord Jesus was with me all the way."
A year later, she awoke to smoke billowing into her Philadelphia row house bedroom. She heard her father yelling, "Get out!" and ran to the window. The cold January air hit her face as she yanked it up, thinking her 6-year-old daughter was already downstairs. It was three stories down, with nobody to catch her-but she jumped anyway.
When Wilson awoke in the hospital, her father told her Kentina had died in the flames. "I just began to scream," Wilson said. Later she discovered her daughter had been in the third-story room that night. She was devastated but resolved not to be bitter: "God allowed it, I receive it and accept it, and I go on."
In the aftermath Wilson married, joined a church, and earned her doctorate in religious education. By 1996, she was teaching in a Virginia seminary and several churches. She returned to Philadelphia in 1997 where the Wilsons and another couple started a Christian school: They started with five students, no salaries, and $240 in the bank.
As the school expanded, she became "burdened" for families whose finances forced them to leave her school for inner-city public schools. She resigned to start Faith First in Pennsylvania, then expanded it to Virginia.
Since 2001 she has educated parents and legislators about school choice and pushed for tax credits for donor companies. Faith First restricts its scholarships to private, evangelical Christian schools. That limits her funding opportunities but increases her supply of stories: the little girl who prayed fervently to return to private school, the grandparents who adopted their biological grandchildren and couldn't afford tuition, the child whose single mom was struggling to provide.
One of this year's stories concerns the Brisbanes of Virginia Beach. "My kids were taught by us and by the church to be followers of Christ, and the [public] school's teachings didn't line up," said Melody Brisbane. Her son recently graduated from Gateway Christian School with honors thanks to the scholarship fund.
On each email she sends, Wilson includes the slogan "Powered by faith." Like the widow and the oil in Elijah's day, she keeps giving until money runs out. Her husband of 30 years, who is "sold out totally to what God has called us to do," helps behind the scenes. "I want to give kids a godly environment and boundaries," Wilson said. "I'm trying to help someone not go the road that I chose."
-Alicia Constant is a Virginia journalist