The new face of home schooling

More and more, African-American families redefine 'homeroom'

There are 200-odd houses in Durham's Eno Trace, but the Smiths' home, at 13 Warbler Lane, is a bit unusual. The first clue: a wooden school desk in the middle of the den.

While other kids stream to bus stops on Monday morning, the two oldest Smith girls - Courtney and Erika - head out to babysit: lessons in physics and American history often wait until nightfall. Meanwhile, E.J. and Cassie, the two youngest, sit back on the couch and fill their notebooks with essays. When they get into trouble with composition, they yell one word: "Mom!"

It used to be predominantly Southern whites who taught their kids at home rather than sending them to integrated schools. But today, what's happening in this well-groomed, mostly black subdivision points to a new reality: Thousands of African-American parents are home-schooling their kids in a growing backlash against America's public-education system - schools that many parents deem too dangerous, too judgmental, or just bad fits. And they're confronting Pythagoras and Shakespeare in venues far beyond the living room: De facto districts are springing up from suburban churches to YMCAs.

But while many point to black home schooling as a means of empowerment, others say the trend turns its back on a major victory of the Civil Rights struggle: equal access to public schools.

"What our fathers believed in the 1950s is that if it was a white school, it had to be better," says Joyce Burges, who has home-schooled four children in Baker, La. "But in the last five years, more and more black parents are saying about those same schools: 'I'm not going to sacrifice my children to a system where they're suffering.' "

A fundamental wrinkle

The total number of black home-schooling families remains small: While roughly 9.5 million African-Americans are enrolled in public schools, about 120,000 are learning at home. But that's up from just a few thousand in 1998 - a fundamental wrinkle in how minorities are educated in America. In 1997, about one percent of home-schooled students were African-American. Now, that figure is closer to 5 percent. Within a few cul-de-sacs of the Smiths' house, for instance, a dozen black families home-school.

"African-American families are increasingly looking at their own environment and asking a difficult question: How can I give my child the opportunities for success and achievement?" says Charles Christian, a sociologist at the University of Maryland at College Park. "They're simply taking a stronger and stronger leadership role over their families."

In the new black suburbs of Atlanta; Richmond, Va.; and Prince Georges County, Md., the home-schooling movement is burgeoning. And a bevy of new groups and resources is feeding it: In Maryland, a group of black housewives-turned-home-schoolers has banded together as the Mocha Moms, and in Atlanta, a home-schooling organization is a hub for tips and tutors.

In Chapel Hill, N.C., stay-at-home mom Jennifer James got so excited about home schooling that she started a national association of black home-schooling families. "Right now, it's all so new - and people are looking for a lot of information," says Ms. James.

The scene here in Durham may be the most typical: It's in this enormous swell of the black middle class, in particular, that home schooling is taking off. Though Durham has won awards recently for improving its inner-city schools, the Smiths worried about peer influences on their children. "We frankly didn't want our kids becoming the kind of kids we see hanging around," says Ms. Smith.

But a chief worry for teachers, according to National Education Association, is the fact that along with avoiding school violence and unsavory peer influences, home-schooled students often miss out on positive socialization, too. No matter what their grades, the criticism goes, they're missing a crucial part of the American curriculum: fraternization with peers.

Even proponents acknowledge that large groups can be daunting for home-schooled students. So today, most home-school devotees send their children to high school, if not to middle school. Experts say it's the first "formative" years when black parents worry the most - and want to avoid the public schools. "The socialization process today is far more difficult than we really know," says Mr. Christian, the University of Maryland sociologist. A lot of parents "are simply saying that [public] school is not where they want to send their children during their formative years."

To Mr. Smith, a mortgage broker-turned-missionary, his family's decision to home-school is an implicit scolding for the public-education system - and a reminder that many black students aren't learning as much as whites. "I do look at what's going on with schools - and there is so much broken that's not fixed," says Mr. Smith. "It seems like integration didn't change people's attitudes."

Curriculum concerns - and flexibility

From Detroit's downtrodden 8 Mile District to the hardscrabble 'hoods of southeast Raleigh, public schools are focusing on their core populations - while they sometimes "lose the kids to the right and the left," says Matt Brouillette, president of the conservative Commonwealth Foundation in Harrisburg, Pa.

But for home schooling to fill the gap, the movement needs stringent - and more consistent - curriculum requirements, according to Lee Greene, editor of Principal Magazine. Currently, curriculum criteria vary by state - and the variation, says Mr. Greene, is vast. "We're concerned with the increasing number of groups avoiding education in a traditional setting," he says.

But for now, concerns over that "avoidance" are far from the learning den at 13 Warbler Lane.

The Smiths' flexible class schedule allowed the whole family to turn a Tennessee business trip into an on-the-road lesson on the first Africans in America, including a visit to the gravestone of "Roots" author Alex Haley.

The two oldest girls are currently writing essays about women in sports and Rumanian gypsies; the youngest have already learned to garden and sew.

Courtney is the only one who's ever set foot in a classroom - during one year of private school. She admits that she sometimes misses the hurly-burly mass of peers. But then she spots irises in the garden - and is soon pondering botany instead.

"School makes you fit into a mold," says her dad. "We're all about breaking out of the mold."

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