Wednesday, January 31, 2001

Teach your Children Well: African American Homeschoolers

Teach your Children Well: African American Homeschoolers
By Pamela Appea

When Joyce Wardick’s youngest son was five and ready for kindergarten in 1984, his mother worried about how her child would fare in a big-school environment. Wardick’s son was small for his age and often sick due to a chronic medical condition. “Surely I can do kindergarten,” the Maryland native and single mother thought to herself. So Wardick began investigating a Christian-oriented home-schooling program that provides the curriculum for families.

But when her son had a serious epilepsy-related medical emergency, Wardick accelerated her plans. Sitting in the hospital waiting room, Wardick, who has worked as a nurse and physician’s assistant, promised God that if her son were to recover, she would stay home and home-school him indefinitely. Looking back, Wardick who currently home-schools two of her grandchildren, recalls that her son never seriously got sick again.

Home-schooling has exploded in the past five years, with the National Home Education Research Institute reporting that between 1.3 and 1.7 million American children from kindergarten to twelfth grade are homeschooled. For African-Americans and other minorities, the number of homechooled students has also significantly increased over the last ten years, although homeschooled African-American children are still am minority within a minority.

“Many minority have finally recognized that government-run education, whose officials and teachers have told them for over 50 years that public schools wouldn’t ‘save them’ has not and cannot do so,” said Brian Ray, president of the National Home Education Research Institute. Ray says that roughly 30,000 to 50,000 African-American children are home-schooled, but cautions that these numbers are estimates, since there are no reliable surveys on minority-homeschooled children. But Ray notes that groups such as the newly-created National Black Home Educators Resource Association, based in Baker, Louisiana, are starting to find a voice.

Most families who homeschool are white, middle-class, two-parent households in which the mother works within the home. But the demographics of homeschooling families are changing, as evidenced by Wardick and others. Homeschooling has definitely become more mainstream, and is no longer associated with fringe or anti-government people, said Margaret Shaw, a long-terim homeschooling parent whose husband founded the Virginia Home Education Association.

Donna Knox, founder and administrator of Day Spring Academy, an Alabama-based church school that acts as an umbrella organization for homeschooling parents across the state and country, has also seen a change in homeschooling families. Knox, who has homeschooled her nine children for 17 years, estimates that around 20-25% of the 600 homeschooled students Day Spring Academy serves are minorities, mostly African-American or of Middle Eastern descent.

Some homeschooling advocates say that the numbers of homeschooled African American children are too low, arguing that public schools are too secular, often violent, and offer inadequate resources for Afrocentric families who want alternatives for their children’s school curriculum.

Joyce Burgess says there are countless reasons why she has chosen to home-school her two sons and three daughters. But one experience stands out in her mind. One day, Burgess was reading one of Laura Ingall Wilder’s Little House books to her daughter, then five, when the girl asked, “Mom are there any books like this for blacks?”

With many public and private schools offering a mostly Eurocentric curriculum, Burgess says, she feared that a teacher wouldn’t be able to answer such a question, if her daughter asked it in school. But as a homeschooling parent, Burgess helped her daughter thoroughly research her question. Among the books they found, Burgess says, her family particularly enjoyed the Addy Book series, which chronicles the life of a former slave girl whose family moves up North after the end of The Civil War.

Creating a national platform for black homeschoolers was something Joyce and Eric Burgess thought about for years. The family traveled across the country attending homeschooling conferences, and Eric Burgess served on the board of the Louisiana State Homeschooling Association. But after Eric Burgess finished his term, the couple decided to help unite African Americans and educate others about African American homeschooling families, in addition to providing people with resources, and the National Black Home Educators Resource Association was born.

Homeschooling parents say the biggest challenge lies in educating the public about their right to homschool. Burges recalls a recent lunch which one woman asked her, in all seriousness, “Is [home-schooling] really legal.”

Starting out, Burgess said, her homeschooling met with a cool reception. “I faced hostility from the white community, the black community, my family,” she recalled. But now, Burgess says, close friends and family members love the idea and are much more supportive. “Black America has always valued education,” Burgess said. “Home-schooling is just another unique way for us to reclaim it for ourselves.”

Lawrence Burges, 17, a Baton Rouge community-college student since he was 16, plans on transferring to Louisiana State University is about two years. He says the best thing about home-schooling was the one-on-one attention. “It’s just like you when you get a [custom-made] suit; it’s tailored especially for you,” he said. “I could work on what aspects of mine needed to be worked on and which aspects of mine—music—was a strength.”

The downside to home-schooling, Lawrence says, was the absence of athletic teams in his elementary-age years, since public schools in many states routinely bar homeschooled students from participating. It’s not just sports; critics worry that homeschooled children will miss the social interaction their peers get in and out of the classroom. But homeschooling families say it’s just a matter of creating opportunities for socialization. Lawrence says he got involved with a state homeschooling league where he played basketball, football and soccer during his teen years.

Another challenge for black parents is making the financial aspect work. In particular, many interested single parents think homescholing wouldn’t be an option for them. “I know a lot of African American families … don’t have the luxury.” Said Wardick, who homeschooled her son as a single parent. While personal finances were definitely an issue for her, Wardick says she found ways and resources for homeschooling to work.

One of the first hings for single parents to make homeschooling fit into their schedules, Wardick says, is to let go of the notion that school hours can only fall between 8:30 a.m.-3 p.m. “You could work during the day and home school during the night,” or vice versa, Wardick counseled. Wardicks adds that families have to work out the best schedule for themselves, depending on the age of the child and the family’s childcare resources.

With the rise of the technology and the Internet, schools like the Internet Home School ( are popping up, providing phone tutorial help and detailed curricula, and for some subjects, like Spanish or French, audiotaped lesson plans. Many African American families use correspondence-type programs that issue diplomas, but other feel free to loosely adhere to a proposed curriculum, adding, or in some cases, leaving out, what they choose. The Burgess family, a self-described singing family, emphasizes music and voice lessons. They also heavily emphasize reading, something most homeschooling mothers of all races, who are often the primary teachers, are drawn to.

When Wardick homeschooled her son, she found it a challenge getting her son to like reading. He absolutely hated reading, Wardick recalls, and was a slow reader. To encourage her son to read for fun, she gave him comic books upon comic books—something most school teachers wouldn’t even consider.

But studies show the majority of homeschoolig kids are not academically lacking and do not, in fact, have trouble getting into college. In fact, some homeschooling parents say, in recent years colleges have been actively recruiting homeschooled children, who routinely out-perform their peers on standardized tests and often enroll in local community colleges to take classes beginning at 15 or 16. According to the Home School Legal Defense Association, nearly 25% of homeschooled students are enrolled one or more grades above their age-level peers in public and private schools. The National Home Education Research Institute’s 1997 study showed that homeschoolers outperform their K-12 public school peers by as much as 30 to 37 percent across all subjects, including social studies, reading and math.

The biggest reward of all, Wardick says, lies in the fact that her youngest son is now a 21-year-old honor student at a Bible college in upstate New York. “If you know anything about bible school,” Wardick added, “there’s a lot of reading.”

Originally published January 31, 2001