When Edeline Mackey’s daughter was getting ready to enter kindergarten in the late ‘90s, she knew the public school system might present some challenges in receiving a quality education. At the time, Mackey was a teaching assistant in Broward County, Florida, and had witnessed firsthand the ways students of color were treated differently by teachers and administrators.
“One of the things I saw that stood out to me was that the naughty kids get labeled,” Mackey said. “A lot of the teachers would sit in the lounge and talk bad about some of the students, and a lot of them were students of color.”
Mackey, who is Black, said she would watch how the labels assigned to “troubled” students got carried with them from grade to grade, and that teachers had already made up their minds about students once that child entered their classroom.
“I always thought that was unfair because every child has a bad day, and they shouldn’t be labeled or blackballed because of that,” Mackey said.
With this firsthand experience, Mackey and her husband knew they wanted to consider going another route for their daughter’s education. She began attending homeschooling conferences around the state, gathering as much information as she could about the process and the curriculum. After a lengthy researching process, she knew homeschooling would be the best choice. Having the ability to customize her daughter’s education and being able to tend to her educational needs was especially appealing for Mackey. It was so appealing, in fact, that she ended up homeschooling both of her daughters from kindergarten through high school.
The transition to homeschooling
As Prism previously reported, some Evangelical homeschooling organizations have recently been ramping up outreach, using the pandemic as an opportunity to draw more families to their style of teaching. But even before homeschooling became the norm for students across America during the pandemic, parents were pulling their kids out of school due for a variety of reasons, including concerns about racism in school systems. With less access to quality resources through the public education system, parents have been left with few choices for ensuring their child receives the attention and tools that are necessary in order to be successful.
Homeschooled children statistically receive higher marks due to special attention catered to their individual needs. White kids are significantly more likely to be homeschooled compared to kids from other ethnicities, but there’s a rise in the number of students of color who are going that route—they just have fewer opportunities and different motivations behind it.
Though white families are more likely to choose homeschooling in order to tailor their child’s education to their individual needs and talents, families of color often cite that they want to pull their kids out of a racially hostile school environment.
Black students make up roughly 10% of the homeschooling population in America. Studies have found that similar to children of other ethnicities, Black and brown students perform better in a homeschooling environment, which researchers say is partly due to higher learning expectations. There is evidence to suggest that teachers—who are predominantly white in America—have lower expectations for Black and brown students, which can lead to lower test scores.
“Most research shows that when you have higher expectations for children, they do better,” said Brian Ray, president of the National Home Education Research Institute. “Some teachers might let students get away with completing 80% of their assignments, but tell some [Black and brown] students, ‘Oh, it’s okay if you only complete 50% of the assignments.’”
In addition to lower expectations, students of color are also disciplined more aggressively in a traditional school environment. A study found that Black students are often treated more harshly than their white peers and are more than twice as likely as white students to be sent to the principal’s office, suspended, or expelled from school. That same study found that Black female students are three times more likely than white students to be disciplined for things like dress code violations or being disobedient.
Ray is currently researching the barriers to homeschooling in “fragile” communities. He said that in discussions with Black families for his research, he learned of their allegiance to the public school system due to the decades-long fight for equal access and desegregation. So even for parents of color who want to remove their kids from public schools, some feel that following through would be a betrayal to the school system and other people of color who fought for inclusion.
“I’ve had many, many Black parents tell me that that’s why they don’t remove their kids from public schools,” Ray said. “It’s anecdotal, but that’s what they’ve told me.”
Since only 3% of American children are homeschooled, the fear of being placed in another minority category can be a deterrent for both parents and students of color.
“If you’re already a minority in one way, you don’t want to be a minority in another way [through homeschooling],” Ray said.
Homeschooling families are more likely to be wealthier and better educated, allowing them the opportunity to stay home with their children full-time. But not all homeschooling educators are well-off.
“In the Black community, mothers [who homeschool their children] can be single or married and most of the mothers I have met maintain careers while homeschooling their children,” said Cheryl Fields-Smith, associate professor of elementary education at the University of Georgia and author of Exploring Single Black Mothers’ Resistance through Homeschooling. “We do this because we cannot always forgo the additional income, but protecting our children is just that important. Homeschooling is a [sacrifice] for most Black families.”
Curriculum ‘needs to be diverse’
Debates over race-related curriculum have been going on for decades in schools. Though there are countless reasons parents pull their kids out of traditional schooling, inadequate race-based curriculum and lack of racial empathy by school administrators is a major factor for parents of color. It was also something Mackey took into consideration when deciding to homeschool her girls.
Mackey, who ended up moving to Georgia with her family when her older daughter entered the third grade, says the schools in her district only taught partial Black history lessons and didn’t do enough to incorporate culture into the curriculum. She said representation was an important aspect of their curriculum and that she took them on field trips to see museums highlighting different cultures and bought books by diverse authors for them to read.
“As a Black woman, I made sure my classroom was represented with [people of] different colors,” Mackey said. “In some other classrooms, everything on the wall that’s positive is white. If you pay attention, a lot of daycare centers only have white dolls. [Schools] have to be careful with that. Whatever fliers or posters [teachers] are posting up in the classroom, it needs to be diverse.”
Infusing racial equity into a child’s curriculum is a common practice for Black and brown home educators, who commonly make a concerted effort to integrate perspectives from different cultures into their curriculum. According to Fields-Smith, this practice often contributes to children’s “positive racial self-identity.”
“Black parents include contributions of Black people in society in their homeschool curriculum, a focus on a variety of arts, and they approach sensitive topics such as slavery or Jim Crow in ways that honor our ancestors, recognize the humanity of enslaved Africans, and a position of strength evidenced by our survival,” said Fields-Smith.
But even homeschooled children can’t avoid race-related problems. Mackey said that sometimes when she took her daughters on field trips with other homeschooled children in her area, her daughters were often the only Black kids—and it was clear the other kids weren’t being properly exposed to people from different cultural backgrounds.
“When we were homeschooling in Florida and in the state of Georgia, we got lots of stares,” Mackey said. “My kids wouldn’t get invited to a lot of stuff.”
Mackey said she believes that if home educators had incorporated more race-related discussions into their child’s curriculum, they likely would have been more comfortable around people from other ethnicities.
“You have to make sure you put your child in areas where they can be exposed to different cultures,” she said. “Bring culture in and do not let your child become isolated. I think it’s important to teach our children to respect different cultures.”
As the percentage of homeschooled children across American continues to rise, Mackey has advice for parents of all racial and economic backgrounds who are considering pulling their kids out of the public school system:
“[Homeschooling] was good for my children, but I’ve been talking to other parents and I’ve heard that it doesn’t work for them,” she said. “Do your research and find out what’s out there and what choices you have. Even though you might not be able to afford to stay home [and teach your kids], there are a lot of different homeschool groups.”