On a typical school day, you might find Wilkinsburg resident Simone Boone baking bread with her sons, Joshua and Noah.
But what seems like a fun activity is a math lesson in progress.
“Three one-thirds make a full cup,” she said, pouring flour while teaching her kids fractions.
Boone is one of the many parents who have decided to homeschool their children since the pandemic started. Her older son, Joshua, had just started kindergarten when COVID-19 hit. Boone decided to homeschool because she felt the online lessons were not helping him.
“At the age of 5, he wants to play. I should not have to have him sitting down, focus at a screen, just so I can take a picture to send to the teacher,” she said. “So when it was time to resend back to the school, I was like, yeah, this is not going to work.”
Homeschooling rates doubled during the pandemic, according to the latest Census Bureau data from the experimental Household Pulse survey. But the jump was much higher among Black families, among whom the proportion of households homeschooling increased by five times — larger than any other racial group. Standing at 3% during spring 2020, the homeschooling rate for Black households jumped to 16% by fall 2020.
Brian Ray, founder and president of the National Home Education Research Institute, said diversity and its visibility in homeschooling have increased dramatically in the last 20 years. More Black families started showing up at homeschooling meetings and conferences about 10 to 12 years ago, according to Ray’s research. And the pandemic further boosted their presence in 2020-21 as virtual schooling allowed parents to take a close look at their children’s education.
The overall homeschooling rates declined when schools reopened but still remained much higher than two years prior. Ray expects rates to rise gradually.
Tailoring to each family’s needs
Aishia Fisher, a mother of six from Aliquippa, has been homeschooling her children for six years. She started when three of her children were in third, fourth and fifth grades because she felt that the local charter school where her kids studied could no longer accommodate their education in a way that matched her religious beliefs.
Fisher has created a school-like system at home, with six classes throughout the day. They have even turned their basement into a classroom to separate the “school” from the rest of the home.
“We have a schedule from 9 to 3:30. And when school is over, school is over,” she said.
But the schedule does not need to be rigid. “One of the good things about schooling at home is even though we have a schedule, when different things come up, we have the ability to adjust and so that’s where that unstructured — that maximizing moments and things — that comes into play,” she said.
Fisher chose a curriculum that she customizes to fit her children’s individual learning styles. She gets to choose the subjects that she wants her kids to learn. To required core subjects, she adds electives, including Bible studies.
“One of the benefits of homeschooling socially is that that child gets to have custom-designed, tailored curriculum just for them,” said Joyce Burges, co-founder and program director at National Black Home Educators (NBHE), a grassroots organization that supports families who are exploring home education. Various homeschool curriculum companies provide educational materials and NBHE recommends tailored curriculum options to parents based on the child’s learning needs, she said.
Boone calls herself an “eclectic homeschooler.” Unlike Fisher, who works with a school schedule, Boone does not use a purchased curriculum package to teach her kids. Her approach is what many homeschoolers call “unschooling”.
“I just pull things from the library. Go by what he would like to know. Try to keep up on what’s happening in the world and put it in a way that’s understandable to him. So that’s how I came up with our curriculum,” she said. ”We don’t really have a schedule.”
The Pennsylvania Home Education Law has requirements that include:
- Filing an affidavit that certifies a parent or supervisor as a homeschooler
- Providing 900 hours of primary instruction or 990 of secondary instruction per year
- Maintaining a portfolio that includes a log of reading materials and work samples
- Taking state-approved standardized tests in third, fifth and eighth grades.
The portfolio must also be evaluated by a certified teacher or a licensed school or clinical psychologist every year.
Reasons to homeschool vary for different families
For many parents, homeschooling allows them to teach their children what they may not learn in public or private schools.
Burges said parents lean toward creating an education that matches their values. Bullying in schools, religious considerations and concerns ranging from sexual content to the whitewashing of Black history often factor into parents’ choices for their children.
Lavonda Pritchett, of Carrick, started homeschooling her 7-year-old daughter during the pandemic because she felt that the social influences and the school curriculum were not what she wanted for her child. She had always wanted to homeschool and made the leap when the pandemic meant that her daughter had to sit in front of a screen for six hours a day for school. With homeschooling, she incorporates teachings that she feels are important for her daughter.
“We have to do some more history about Pennsylvania because we live here, and you got some bases you have to hit for homeschooling. But the majority of my history teachings are African American studies,” she said.
Ray said he thinks that the pandemic prompted a sharp increase in homeschooling rates because virtual schooling gave parents a window into what was happening in public schools.
“They were surprised at what was going on. So that just boosted it for Black families,” he said. “Plus, the parents say, ‘We are not happy with the version of history that public schools teach. … We would like to have more focus on our ethnic group in the schooling of our children.’”
Some Black parents, he added, also say their children, especially the boys, continue to face discrimination in public schools.
For Leah Walker, a mother of four, the decision to homeschool her children stemmed from a bullying experience that her daughter faced in the charter school she attended.
“She didn’t feel protected. She didn’t feel safe. She just did not want to go to the school any longer,” Walker said.
Teacher churn and turnover of other staff also concerned Walker.
Cheryl Fields-Smith, professor of elementary education at the University of Georgia, has been researching homeschooling families since before the pandemic began. A familiar refrain, she said, is that parents inform a school of bullying and then the school won’t or can’t stop the behavior. “And so they have to protect their children,” she said. “So overall, homeschooling is a type of refuge.”
Fisher’s son went back to a charter school after homeschooling for six years but started facing behavioral issues at school. They have decided to continue homeschooling starting next year.
Navigating challenges while providing meaningful education
Homeschooling is sometimes met with criticism for purported impacts on public school enrollment, student achievement and children’s social skills, or for increasing the risk of child abuse at home.
A 2019 Psychology Today article by a developmental psychologist acknowledged the benefits of homeschooling while also highlighting drawbacks, such as passing on biases and misinterpretations; ineffectively playing the dual role of parent and teacher; and limitations on providing a diverse and updated educational experience.
A child welfare expert told The Harvard Gazette in 2020 that the lack of homeschooling standards and monitoring creates various vulnerabilities for homeschooled children. The dangers, she said, range from not being proficient in basic academic skills, to being radicalized to a family’s ideology, to suffering from abuse or neglect.
Ray’s research shows that most homeschooled students performed significantly higher than institutional school students in terms of academic achievement, social-emotional learning and success into adulthood or college.
When Fisher started homeschooling her children six years ago, she did not know anyone who had done it. One of her biggest challenges was navigating the state laws and preparing a curriculum.
“I was at a complete loss,” she said.
Boone faced a different challenge: helping her 5-year-old son adapt to the new education system. “Josh would push back and I would remind him, hey, do you want to do this?” she said. The challenge was finding a balance between the demands of education and the flexibility of being at home. “You can sleep in as late as you want. You can play as long as you want. You can do as much as you want at home. But with that, we need to do something. And then there’s some days we end up doing nothing, and I’m OK with that as long as we pick up the next day.”
Fields-Smith said parents often try to replicate school at home and realize that it’s not possible. “A lot of times, home educators will tell you that they first had to get to know their children as learners,” she said. “Sometimes they set out to teach their children in the way that they themselves learn. And then they realize it’s not working because their child learns a whole different way.”
As a first-time homeschooler, Pritchett felt unprepared to educate her daughter. “I still feel like I’m never prepared. I think my biggest challenge is not feeling like I’m doing enough for her. Am I the best teacher for her?”
For some parents, homeschooling also poses a financial challenge.
Fisher is a stay-at-home mother with no additional source of income. The curriculums can cost up to $1,000, and Fisher has been paying for four to suit her children’s needs. “It’s been a financial sacrifice.” She believes that state funding for public schools should also be available for her children as long as they stay within the state guidelines.
National Black Home Educators provides financial assistance to member families in need. The organization advises families in choosing a curriculum that fits their budget and also assists by purchasing materials for them up to $150.
Fields-Smith said homeschooling can make an impact on a household’s economic status.
“A middle-class, Black family that decides to homeschool and they forgo an income, they can easily go from being middle class to working middle class,” she said. “But it’s a sacrifice that they’re willing to do because this is what their children need.”
Boone said homeschooling has given her the flexibility to create a meaningful learning experience for her children and thinks everyone should get a chance to explore it.
“They’re doing great and that makes me happy that I can help each of them in their own way.”
Lajja Mistry is the K-12 education reporter at PublicSource. She can be reached at [email protected]
This story was fact-checked by Jack Troy.
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