City Paper is not for tourists
The living and dining rooms inside Monica Utsey’s unit in the Fort Chaplin Park Apartments on East Capitol Street aren’t marked by the typical 21st century interior decor. Instead, packed bookcases stand in one section. Colorful pocket folders hung vertically from a wall are filled with workbooks. Educational posters dot one space, while an erasable chalk-board is mounted in another. A small student-style desk, anchoring a corner, holds pens and markers. Next to it, a larger table that also serves as the gathering place for family meals is decorated with a spiral flip book, turned to a quote by famed abolitionist and former D.C. Recorder of Deeds Frederick Douglass. The place is a virtual school house.
Utsey is one of thousands of African Americans nationwide, many of them middle-class, who are homeschooling their children and persuading other families to join in a growing movement. They see their actions as a strong defense against what they consider an inadequate and increasingly hostile system of public education. For them, homeschooling also is a viable tool for constructing in their children a positive self-confidence and uncompromising appreciation for black history and culture.
“I did not want my children to receive an education that excluded their historical contributions, resulting in low self-esteem,” explains Utsey, who began her homeschooling journey reluctantly. “I also did not want my oldest son to associate being smart with being a nerd.”
She was an editor with an online magazine, imagining herself with a career as some New York writer, perhaps with Essence. Then, she became pregnant in 1999; when that first child turned 3 years old, she says she decided to enroll him in a language immersion program. She toured several public and private schools, including the Washington International School and the Rock Creek International School.
“My husband [Eric] vetoed nearly every school I visited because of lack of diversity. He kept saying, ‘You have a [college] degree, why can’t you teach him,’” says Utsey, who has a degree in journalism from Howard University.
After attending a homeschooling workshop sponsored by the Black Alliance for Educational Options, she immediately saw it as a possible solution to her dilemma. “As years went on, I became more planted in the home school community. It became more of a lifestyle,” she says. Her sons are now 15 and 8 years old, and she’s been teaching them at home for a decade.
Talk to other African-American homeschoolers around D.C., and you hear similar stories.
“When we made the decision to blaze this trail, there was no turning back,” says Renée Flood-Wright, a visual artist who lives with her husband, LaMont Wright, 11-year-old daughter, and 13-year-old son in Columbia Heights. Their apartment is filled with learning materials, and an entire wall has been converted into a chalkboard.
Initially, Flood-Wright and her husband enrolled their son in the Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom Public Charter School. Later, they put their daughter in Bancroft Elementary, a nearby D.C. public school. Flood-Wright felt staff at both institutions were insensitive to African-American children: “I was feeling like we have only one shot at getting this right.”
Former senior U.S. Department of State staffer Kyna Clemons and her husband, George, who live a few minutes from National Harbor in Prince George’s County, had their youngest children in private school. But as the size of the family grew—ultimately to seven children—“tuition became too expensive,” putting them on the home school path. “I was loving my career. I was working for the State Department and had a real high-powered job, travel all over Europe,” Clemons says. “My [supervisors] agreed to let me work from home. I did that for about two years.”
Eventually, Clemons had to decide between the job and the education of her children. “My husband and I took a leap of faith, and I resigned [from work] to homeschool our children full time,” she continues. “It’s just a beautiful thing to be able to teach your children. There is nothing that has brought me more enjoyment than getting on my knees and digging for worms.”
Brian Ray, founder and director of the National Home Education Research Institute, estimates 2.4 million children in grades K-12 nationwide are being homeschooled. Of that total, he says, 200,000 are African Americans.
In the Washington metro region, all three jurisdictions require homeschooling parents to provide annual notification to their state or local education departments. In the 2012-13 school year, Virginia had 34,668 homeschoolers, including those with religious exemptions, according to the Virginia Department of Education. The most recent numbers listed on the Maryland State Department of Education website were for 2006-07; then, there were 24,277 home school students. A call to the office for more recent data was not returned by the time this story was published.
In 2008, the first year the D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education began tracking homeschoolers, there were 198 students being taught in non-public education or private settings. Now, there are 330, according to OSSE. None of the jurisdictions collect data by race, however.
But in a city that still has a black plurality, bordered by the nation’s wealthiest majority black county, homeschooling cooperatives offer a hint of African-American involvement. For example, Sankofa Homeschool Community, launched by Utsey “principally for African Americans, biracial, and other ‘people of color,’” boasts a regional membership of 300 families. Pier Penic’s Culture at Home group has nearly 500 member families. Clemons recently established Ujima: Children of the Sun Homeschool Mpotam with 10 families and 30 children.
“At least once a week, I get a call from someone who wants to home school,” says Utsey.
“There is definitely an upward trend,” says OSSE spokesman Briant Coleman.
In the popular imagination of most Americans, homeschooling conjures images of white religious families, determined to protect their children from society’s sinful and ungodly ways. That picture doesn’t convey many of the reasons parents make such a choice. African Americans are homeschooling for some of the same reasons as their white counterparts, says Ray, who just completed a study, “African American Homeschool Parents’ Motivations for Homeschooling and their Black children’s Academic Achievement.” He found six primary motivations, including the “desire to develop strong family relationships, customize the education of each child,” and “provide moral instruction.”
“People can question what the movement is doing, but about 99 percent of African Americans rotting in prison are people who are the product of public schools,” asserts Penic, who of the people I spoke with is, perhaps, the most bullish on home schooling. She was enrolled in public schools in Boston during that city’s intense racial desegregation battles in the 1970s. Things were so bad, she says, her father refused to send her to school because of busing and worries about her safety. Officials threatened to throw him in jail if he continued violating anti-truancy laws. Adamant about not subjecting his children to the violence that permeated desegregation, he told authorities he’d be willing to go. Instead, he sent Penic to a Connecticut boarding school. She never regained a trust of public schools—anywhere.
“Private schools also aren’t preparing [black children],” says Penic, whose home-schooled daughter is currently enrolled at Trinity. Those results quieted some friends and members of her family who initially were critical of her decision not to send her children to a traditional school. “They changed their tunes.”
The trend toward homeschooling isn’t that surprising, given rising negative reports and perceptions about the country’s public education system. African Americans, especially, have not fared well. Test scores for those in urban centers have been among the lowest reported by the U.S. Department of Education; independent reports have documented alarming rates of expulsion of black boys, in particular. Historic numbers of schools in urban centers, including in the District, have been closed, leading to allegations of discrimination against low-income and working-class blacks. Then there are questions about the curriculum: Some critics argue that the standard material doesn’t invite any appreciation of black history and culture.
“[African Americans’] culture is not honored and bonding is not even a consideration,” education advocate Jawanza Kunjufu wrote in a 2013 essay in the Atlanta Voice. “They are given low expectations which helps to explain how students can be promoted from one grade to another without mastery of content.”
Ray says hostility toward black males repeatedly pops up in his research around why an increasing number of African Americans are choosing to home school. In 2010, the Schott Foundation for Public Education asserted that “in the majority of U.S. states, districts, communities, and schools, the conditions necessary for black males to systemically succeed in education do not exist… In fact, the data indicates that most systems contribute to the conditions in which black males have nearly as great a chance of being incarcerated as graduating.”
Flood-Wright recounts an episodes in her children’s lives that sealed her determination to home school. Her son seemed to be having a “wonderful” time in kindergarten at Stokes PCS. “Then first grade came along and an inexperienced [teacher]” seemed unable to manage the classroom and certainly was uncomfortable with the energy level of Flood-Wright’s son.
“There were these silly punitive things. He kept being sent to the dean’s office.
“The way they are teaching in these schools, every black boy will be in special education,” she adds.
OSSE reported that in the 2012-13 school year, 10,000 out of 80,000 students had been suspended at least once. The charter school suspension rate was more than 72 percent higher than that of DCPS. The OSSE report also found that black students were more than six times as likely to be suspended or expelled than their white counterparts.
Incredibly, 180 of those suspended or expelled were 3- and 4-year olds. The D.C. Council’s Committee on Education led by at-large member David Grosso approved legislation in March that would curb such action.
Utsey frequently hears African-American parents’ frustrations about the public education system. She recalls receiving a telephone call from one mother who was considering homeschooling as an option after repeated struggles with administrators at a charter school. They were complaining that her son was misbehaving and engaged in one problem after another.
“But when I met him, I couldn’t believe he was the same person they had described,” Utsey says. “Sometimes, some children need something different than what is being offered.”
Says Penic: “People are developing a distrust for school system. Based on that distrust, more are coming to the conclusion they need to have choice.”
In the 1970s, during the height of the Black Power movement, many African Americans held the same view of un-inviting public schools. They subsequently opened independent, African-centered schools or appealed to the government for community schools, largely operated by parents and neighborhood leaders. The District had an array of such institutions, including Watoto Shule, Ujamaa Shule, and Roots, which remain in operation—although the later has morphed into a charter school.
Those schools began to fade a decade ago, however, with the introduction and rapid spread of charter schools, even if it was Congress—not local officials—that initially pushed them on the city. The independently operated but publicly funded institutions were considered promising by many African-American, middle-class parents. They perceived the traditional schools as wholly dysfunctional; there was constant in-fighting between members of the Board of Education. Additionally, there was a dearth of high-quality instructors and administrators in many schools in black neighborhoods. The absence of a rigorous curriculum exacerbated matters, causing consternation over whether African-American children, as adults, would be able to compete in a global market. In other words, the problems that had sparked creation of those alternative black schools remained.
Now, after two decades of charters, a pox-on-all-of-them attitude may be developing among homeschoolers. According to some reports, including a study by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), some District charters don’t perform much better than traditional schools, prompting some of the dissatisfaction.
Does the rise of middle-class black homeschoolers suggest the love affair with charters is dying? Some blacks I spoke with say yes, and predict more families will escape to their living and dining rooms to teach their children, particularly if a newly proposed student assignment system keeps them out of the higher-performing middle and high schools. Mayor Muriel Bowser recently provided a reprieve for some students who would have been denied entry to the popular Alice Deal Middle School and Wilson High School in upper Northwest and Eastern High School in Kingman Park. But those tweaks affect only a small number of people overall.
Homeschooling, says Penic, is “another way of exercising choice for [the] advancement of our children.”
Today’s homeschooling is not your grand-mother’s homeschooling. It isn’t even a version of those 1970s Afro-centric schools. The families teaching their own children are using concepts like unschooling, a cacophony of programs like Classic Conversations, and a vast instructional network that utilizes cooperatives and the Internet.
“It’s becoming more a business. Families like ours can’t afford it. We’re losing the parent role as the instructor,” laments Clemons (although clearly with the creation of her own cooperative, she has made the adjustment).
“[D.C.] is one of the best cities to home-school in,” says Flood-Wright. “I live on 16th Street, so I don’t even have to take my car. I can just hop on the bus and go to the library, to the [National] Mall, to any of the museums.”
Flood-Wright says she has made believers of those who initially questioned her decision; her children have excelled. For example, during the past two years, her son has worked with Meridian Hill Pictures, making documentaries.
“Last fall, he was one of the youngest people invited to a film summit at the White House,” she says. “He met [First Lady] Michelle Obama. My relatives brag about what my children are doing.”
In his study, Ray found black homeschooled students “performed as well or better than the national average of public school students of all races/ethnicities, while Black students in public schools scored, in general, far below average.”
Penic has developed a partnership with several Smithsonian museums, including The National Museum of African Art. She also works with The Intel Computer Clubhouse at Gum Springs in Alexandria.
She recently held her weekly meeting of The American Girl Book Club, which has become part of the D.C. homeschool network, at the National Portrait Gallery. Her elementary-age charges convened for a discussion of one of the heroines under the glass canopy, amid the trees and ground-level water fountain of the Robert and Arlene Kogod Courtyard, before being set loose in a directed treasure hunt to other parts of the facility. On a different day, another group of Penic’s students will gather for her class entitled “Creative Writing Unbound: Conversations in the Art World—Realism, Naturalism, Modernism.”
“I am a fan of the classics. I have created a lot of my own curriculum and put together classes,” says Penic, who has a master’s degree in English literature. Her classes sometimes are attended by white children, but she says she’s made clear to their parents that she cannot adjust her African-centered focus. “Just in case there is any confusion about what I do, I tell them we’re going to talk about slavery; we’re not going to change that. We aren’t going to stop going to the Anacostia Community Museum.”
Penic also has served somewhat as a guidance counselor for many home-schooled children entering college. In the process, she has found more and more universities are eagerly accepting students who have been educated by their parents. She ticks off a list of such schools that home-schooled students attend, including Princeton, Harvard, Dartmouth, and Morehouse.
“I am an unschooler at heart,” says Clemons. “I use textbooks as resources, but I follow my child’s interest.” Until recently, she embraced “Classic Conversations,” a program that offers classes once a week and then requires parents to reinforce the lesson the other four days. The instructional vantage point is often from European history and culture, says Clemons. “One day it hit me that we weren’t teaching our children our history and who they were as African children.”
Not everyone is enamored with an African-centric or Afro-centric educational approach, however. There is the view that it is far too limiting and only hinders African-American students’ capacity to effectively compete.
Earlier this year, there was a dust up at the Howard University-run middle school when three instructors were fired, allegedly for placing too much emphasis on black history. Parents asserted that a new principal banned lessons about the African-American holiday Kwanzaa and former D.C. Mayor Marion Barry. Students staged a protest, demanding the instructors be reinstated. That has yet to happen.
The strong emphasis on African-centered education doesn’t mean excluding other lessons, says Utsey: “Of course, the goal is to teach critical skill sets.”
The job does have its challenges, however.All homeschoolers have had to grapple with how to prevent their children from being isolated from the larger community of their peers without necessarily being captured by the negatives that may exist in such environments.
Flood-Wright enrolled her children in an after-care program at the popular Sitar Arts Center in Adams Morgan. Utsey tried to provide an opportunity for her son to actually play basketball on a school team in the District. “You can’t play on a high school team. You can’t even petition to play.” Utsey says. Seeking a solution she went to a private school in Maryland, which, she says, wanted “him to cut his [dreadlocks], if he wanted to play on the team.” Ultimately, he got to play with a Boys & Girls Club team on Benning Road NE.
Then there’s the battle to keep the government at bay. Not unlike charter operators, homeschoolers believe fewer rules and regulations allow them to create an optimum learning environment for their children. That isn’t always what educational authorities, charged with enforcing standards for all students, have in mind.
In the District, the Office of the State Superintendent sought in 2014 to establish regulations that would have made the state superintendent the “head homeschooler,” beginning in 2016. OSSE also established that a student had to earn 24 credits in order to receive a state-issued diploma. Those proposed rules created a huge uproar from homeschoolers—black and white.
Mike Donnelly, a Home School Legal Defense Association staff attorney, described the regulations in a report on homeschoolers as “a significant and unreasonable overreach of the state,” asserting they would require submission to a “cookie-cutter curriculum.”
“If D.C. wants to do this to their public schools that’s fine. But leave home schools alone,” he wrote.
OSSE spokesman Briant Coleman says the regulations were misinterpreted, but adds that the agency removed confusing examples to “make clear the State Superintendent was not intended to be the head of homeschooling in the District” and “parents’ autonomy has not changed.” A final version of the regulations has yet to be released.
That need for freedom has meant that homeschoolers don’t collect thousands of dollars in per-pupil spending like public and charter schools do. In the District last school year, charters received an estimated total of $600 million for students who attend those institutions. Technically, the money follows the child. So, if a student leaves a DCPS facility and enrolls in a charter, that charter would receive somewhere between $11,000 and $13,000 taxpayer dollars. Some private schools also receive public funds for District students, through a federally financed voucher or scholarship program.
Those programs were championed by Congress. But homeschoolers lack such support. Ray of the National Home Education Research Institute estimates that homeschooling expenses represent “over $24 billion that American taxpayers do not have to spend, annually, since these children are not in public schools.”
“We don’t even get a tax credit,” says Utsey.
Even without the money, however, those I spoke with wouldn’t change their decision. “We just accepted that our tax dollars would not be used for our purposes,” says Clemons. “[But] even if my kids had been given scholarships to the most prestigious school in Washington, D.C., I would still home school.
“I like taking responsibility for our children’s education.”