Tamsin Thomas of Orlando, Fla. said when she was in high school, public school officials determined her younger brother, a bright-but-shy fifth grader, should be in special education classes. She was horrified. She feared her brother was being shifted, for no good reason, into less-challenging classes and onto a lesser track in life. She urged her mother to fight it.
Mom won. Now Thomas’s brother is set to graduate with a standard diploma, and planning to enlist in the Marines. But that experience and others convinced Thomas that when it comes to public schools, African-American parents are rolling the dice with their children’s futures.
So, she homeschools.
“I don’t want my daughter to be short-changed because of the color of her skin,” Thomas said of Olivia, 5. “I feel like I’m the only one who has her best interests at heart.”
Thomas isn’t alone.
Researchers estimate 200,000 of the 2.4 million homeschoolers nationwide are African-American. Their parents are largely motivated by the same reasons that propel other homeschool parents. But a significant number also want to shield their children from schools they believe will shortchange them, leading to outcomes that are beyond troubling.
In this respect, the rise in black homeschoolers isn’t a trend on the fringe, but another thread in the educational freedom story that has always been part of the black experience in America. As a new report from the Black Alliance for Educational Options put it, “Black people’s struggle to obtain an education in America is older than the Declaration of Independence.”
It wouldn’t be surprising if the homeschool chapter was especially telling in Florida.
The state with the second-highest number of black students in the nation (after Texas), and arguably the most robust array of choice options, had 84,096 home-schooled students in 2014-15, up 21 percent in five years. The state doesn’t track the students by race, but many homeschool parents, both white and black, say the increase in African-American homeschooling families is clear.
Thomas said when she began homeschooling Olivia several years ago, she was the only African-American parent in her homeschooling networks. But now there are several, and she expects to see more.
“It’s the way things are going in society,” Thomas said. “We say we think racism is behind us, but … “
Thomas referred to widely publicized incidents of police brutality across the nation and the Trayvon Martin case in Central Florida. She said she also witnessed negative treatment of African-American students in public school classrooms, which she visited when she worked in marketing for two private universities and a Florida school district.
Some teachers took a selectively more aggressive tone when addressing African-American students, she said. Others tried to “mimic dialect” instead of using proper English. Thomas found that troubling – signs that some teachers were reacting to group “labels” rather than individual students.
“I didn’t want her to be labelled,” Thomas said of Olivia. “I need to give her a fighting chance to succeed.”
Friends, many of them black professionals like Thomas and her husband, a college administrator, had similar encounters in both public and private schools. Some of them turned to homeschooling, too.
Jeuelle Ottley Sam, another African-American homeschooling parent in the Orlando area, said race and racism were not factors in the decision she made to homeschool her daughters, 4 and 7. Among other reasons, she was motivated by concerns her children would be constrained in traditional schools by requirements that children of certain ages be in certain grades, even if they’ve already mastered that grade-level material.
But, Sam added, there is no doubt concerns about race are at play with many African-American homeschool parents. She mentioned one parent she knows who decided to homeschool in part because one of her sons wasn’t being pushed to excel in a private school. Was that a result of low expectations? Many African-American parents wonder, and worry.
“You don’t know if the assessment of the teacher is being colored” by race, said Sam, a Howard University graduate who attended private schools growing up. For many African-American parents, “it’s always there in your mind, even if it’s not overt.”
Lorielle Hollaway of St. Petersburg, Fla. said she decided to homeschool her 6-year-old daughter, Nadia, in part because of the experience she and her older brother had in public schools.
She said she was bored by curriculum that “wasn’t relevant or challenging” and left her “educationally unprepared.” Her mother, meanwhile, was so concerned about what she viewed as teachers’ indifference to her son that she urged him to drop out of high school, get his GED and take classes at the local community college. He’s now in the Army with an associate’s degree.
Hollaway speculated more black parents are homeschooling because “they feel they can do a better job preparing black children for life,” she said.
For her, it’s no picnic. Hollaway works part-time as a night-shift janitor while taking classes full-time at community college. Juggling those responsibilities with home-schooling is a challenge, she said, but nothing beats the ability to devote full attention to Nadia and her 4-year-old sister, Ava, and to set the bar where it should be. “I expect a lot from my children,” she said.
Back in Orlando, Tamsin Thomas had other concerns about public schools.
She said she didn’t want Olivia (or sister Ona, now 19 months old) exposed to inappropriate language and behavior, or to a test-heavy curriculum she believes has replaced genuine learning in too many schools. She also wanted a faith-based atmosphere, something a public school cannot provide.
Once a week, Thomas brings Olivia to a homeschool co-op based at the Florida Hospital SDA Church, a few miles north of downtown Orlando. In a mere few months, the racially diverse group has grown from four children to 25. Among its instructors is a certified teacher with experience in district, charter and private schools.
On a recent co-op day, Olivia, hair in braids beneath a glittery princess clip, sat with a half-dozen other students. Little fingers dabbed paint on paper plates as their teacher told them about the artist Monet. “His work is called impressionism,” she said, as Olivia’s plate became a blend of pink, blue and green. “You’re dabbing and swirling a lot. I like it!” she told Olivia. “Beautiful!”
Thomas said she relies on the co-op to teach art, music and PE. At home, she focuses on reading, writing, math, science, history, geography – and what she called “special projects.” That’s a pivot into whatever strikes Olivia’s fancy.
This particular week, Olivia wanted to learn how stickers were made, and then make some. Thomas said she had no idea, but she and her daughter would do some research and give it a shot.
In the process, they’d both have fun and learn.