In African-American Communities, Growing Interest In Home-Schooling

Mar 30, 2016
Originally published on April 4, 2016 9:13 pm

On a quiet street in Detroit, light pours into the back windows of the Kirksey home. In the back of the house the walls are lined with textbooks, workbooks and multicultural children's books. It's a home — but it's also a classroom.

Brandon, 8, is wearing pajamas and a paper crown from Burger King. He heads into the back room and pulls a large laminated world map off the bookshelf.

"This is the whole entire map! Michigan," he says enthusiastically pointing to his home state. His two siblings, Zachary, 3, and Ariyah, 1, echo him.

Their mother and teacher, Camille Kirksey, ushers them into the dining room. Sitting among bowls of fruit and stacks of books, the kids figure out the date and the weather.

This is a typical start to Brandon's school day. Today's agenda: poetry recitation. Then, it's time for reading and math. Fridays are reserved for science experiments and field trips.

Brandon is part of a distinct subgroup of the U.S. home-schooling population: African-Americans.

"Black home-schooling is definitely on the rise," says Ama Mazama, a professor of African-American studies at Temple University.

It's hard to determine the exact number of home-school students, let alone the racial breakdown. Most estimates put the total figure at roughly 2 million and suggest that between 5 and 10 percent are black.

Mazama says black home-schoolers tend to come from urban, two-parent households.

The key question, she says, is why these families are deciding to leave traditional schools. Research suggests black families often choose to home school for very different reasons than white families.

"White home-schoolers, the No. 1 reason they give when asked is religion," Mazama says. "For the black families, it was not the case at all. It was racism."

This is particularly interesting, she says, because African-Americans are consistently the most religious subgroup in America. They pray more. They go to church more.

"And yet, religion was not No. 1, not No. 2, not No. 3."

Religion was not the driving issue for the Kirksey family. A few years ago, home-schooling hadn't occurred to them.

"I've never seen anybody — especially black people — home schooling," Camille Kirksey says.

At the time, Brandon was enrolled in a private pre-K.

"It was a mostly black school with mostly white teachers, which didn't really bother me until I saw the difference in how they treated certain kids — especially boys," she says. "They seemed to be very harsh, kinda barking at them, ordering them around."

Brandon says his teacher "didn't really treat anybody nicely."

That matched a pattern Kirksey says she's seen elsewhere: black children who aren't given the kindness she thinks kids need.

Kirksey was trying to figure out what to do about the situation when she saw a post on Facebook. It profiled an African-American home-schooling family. Before long, she'd convinced her husband, quit her job of 10 years and started teaching.

She says she was particularly excited to teach her kids a version of history that features their own ancestors.

"As black people, I really want my children to understand that we are a huge part of history that is not always told," Kirksey says.

It wasn't long before Kirksey found a local home-school co-op where most of the other families are also black.

While the decision to home-school was largely driven by concerns about race and racism, Camille Kirksey says it's worth it for another reason too: It made them a closer, stronger family.

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Brandon Kirksey wears whatever he wants to school - PJs and a paper crown is fine. He's part of a distinct and some say growing subgroup - African-American homeschoolers. Gabriela Emanuel of NPR's Ed team reports that black families often choose to homeschool for different reasons than white families.

GABRIELA EMANUEL, BYLINE: On a quiet street in Detroit, light pours in the back windows of the Kirksey home. It falls on a wall of textbooks, workbooks and multicultural children's books. Brandon is 8. He pulls out a laminated world map.

BRANDON KIRKSEY: Here's the whole entire map - Michigan.

EMANUEL: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Michigan.

BRANDON: Michigan.

EMANUEL: This isn't just a family home. It's actually a tiny school, a school for one, for Brandon. And his younger siblings, Zachary, who's 4, and Ariyah, who's 1, tag along for fun.

CAMILLE KIRKSEY: Come on, boys.

EMANUEL: Camille Kirksey is a Detroit native. She used to work for a health care company, but for the past three years, she's homeschooled her children. Now each day starts with yoga.

KIRKSEY: All right, let's quiet down, close our eyes.

EMANUEL: Next up, poetry.

KIRKSEY: We cannot change the inevitable.

BRANDON: We cannot change the inevitable. I'm trying to say this.

KIRKSEY: That - I know. There's a lot of syllables in that word. In...

BRANDON: In...

KIRKSEY: ...Ev (ph)...

EMANUEL: They're standing in the dining room where bowls of fruit mix with stacks of books.

BRANDON: Inedivitable (ph).

EMANUEL: (Laughter).

KIRKSEY: That's OK. It's hard. It is.

EMANUEL: After this, it's reading and math. And Fridays are reserved for science experiments and field trips. Kirksey says a few years ago, homeschooling hadn't even occurred to her.

KIRKSEY: I've never seen anybody, especially black people, homeschooling or any - what is this homeschool thing?

EMANUEL: At that time, Brandon was enrolled in a private pre-K.

KIRKSEY: It was a mostly black school with mostly white teachers, which didn't really bother me until I saw the differences in how they treated certain kids, especially boys. They seemed to be very harsh, kind of like barking at them, ordering them around.

EMANUEL: Brandon agrees.

BRANDON: She didn't really treat anybody nicely.

EMANUEL: Kirksey says this matches a pattern she's seen where black children aren't given the kindness she thinks kids need.

KIRKSEY: It's not something I want my kids to have to deal with.

EMANUEL: That's when Kirksey saw a post on Facebook. It profiled an African-American homeschooling family. It wasn't long before she convinced her husband, quit her job of 10 years and started teaching. She says she was particularly excited to teach her children a version of history that features their own ancestors.

KIRKSEY: As black people, I really want my children to understand that we were a huge part of history that is not always told.

EMANUEL: Ama Mazama is a professor at Temple University.

AMA MAZAMA: Black homeschooling is definitely on the rise.

EMANUEL: She calls it a movement that's been accelerating.

MAZAMA: Accelerating in the past three, four five years, really.

EMANUEL: It's notoriously hard to determine the exact number of homeschoolers, let alone the racial breakdown, but estimate suggests 5 to 10 percent of the homeschool population are African-Americans. That's more than a hundred thousand kids. They tend to come from urban, two-parent households that are by and large better off and better educated. Mazama says the key question is why. Why do these families choose to homeschool?

MAZAMA: White homeschoolers' No. 1 reason that they give when asked is religion. For the black families, that was not the case at all. It was racism.

EMANUEL: Classroom racism was a big part of it when Camille Kirksey and her husband decided to homeschool Brandon.

BRANDON: Nine minus one equals eight.

KIRKSEY: OK, so let's see about...

BRANDON: C.

KIRKSEY: ...C. It's a little bit more challenging.

BRANDON: OK.

EMANUEL: But it's not just about race and racism. Kirksey says it also allows the family to be a tighter, stronger family. Gabrielle Emanuel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.