The COVID crisis forced many American families to keep children at home for school during much of the past year. That was especially true for Black Americans, who saw the most dramatic rise in a home-based learning experience of any racial group, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But even as many kids are returning to brick-and-mortar classrooms, a growing number of Black families have decided to continue teaching their kids at home.
One of the people they’re turning to for help and information is Khadijah Ali-Coleman. She’s an educator and a home-schooling mother, and the co-founder of the organization, Black Family Homeschool Educators and Scholars. On Friday’s episode of A Word, I spoke with Ali-Coleman about why more Black families are home-schooling their kids, and the benefits and challenges these families face. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Jason Johnson: Even though you were home-schooling before COVID, the pandemic is a key part of your story as an educator. You were defending your thesis at Morgan State University, where I am faculty, on March 13 of 2020, which for many of us was kind of the last day before everything locked down. What was it like finishing your doctorate, knowing you’re a home-school parent? Did the beginning of the lockdown open up something in your brain where you’re like, “Oh my God, this is going to be the beginning of a new movement”? How did the lockdown affect how you look at home-schooling?
Khadijah Ali-Coleman: I will tell you that even deciding to do my dissertation involving, or looking at, home-school…my doctoral program is community college leadership, and so I had been teaching community college for over 10 years and decided on this topic because of the growth in dual-enrolled students that I was having, but also home-school students. And so I got a lot of pushback from even deciding to do this, because this population was really on the fringes before COVID.
So when COVID happened, and then all of these stories you hear about moving to virtual learning, parents in a panic, schools in a panic, and these decisions to home-school, it really made my dissertation more relevant than I could’ve ever imagined. And so I immediately started getting feedback from folks, or questions from folks. “What are your thoughts, Khadijah? The schools, it was just so much moving to a virtual environment.” “I feel like I can do it better myself.” And so I immediately started going into maven mode of creating YouTube videos on home-schooling due to COVID. Because this is really a different type of experience for parents, Home-schooling in response to a global health pandemic, rather than the experience that me and other veteran home-schoolers had, where we had decided to home-school before the pandemic.
There were a lot of Black people who were moving to home-schooling before the pandemic. The National Center for Education Statistics reported that home-schooling among Black people, from 2007 to 2016 had doubled anyway. I have family members who have home-schooled their kids, sometimes it was for health reasons. Sometimes it was just for distance reasons. Sometimes it was for safety reasons. In your experience, what are the reasons that Black people are choosing to home-school their children, and how might that differ from white families, or Asian American families, or other demographic groups?
That’s a great question because, yes, prior to COVID-19, you were seeing all the reasons that you stated and even more. There are researchers such as Leah Baker—I pulled from her research, and of course my colleague, Cheryl Fields-Smith, a lot for my literature review, because their data showed that, yes, Black people choosing to home-schooling is very different than the experience of white families. You had Black families deciding because of everything from the consequences that Black children face when doing anything from behavioral issues, uniforms, hairstyles, things becoming so punitive, to just what many families look at as being racial profiling.
I know in my research study, talking to the children themselves, that some of these children who were in public school before deciding to home-school, feeling that before when they were in school, not being able to self-pace or being able to progress further, or their success was looked at as being not real. I remember talking to one young lady who said that her teacher couldn’t believe that she had finished reading all these books that were assigned during class, or that she had already read them and had completed a lot of the assignments before they were due, and having those types of experiences. So, very different than where a lot of white families [that] decide to home-school a lot because of religious reasons. Also, a lot of times not really wanting to be in a school that they look at as being liberal or not having some of their own conservative ideals. So the differences are very blatant between the two populations in terms of choosing to home-school.
So one of the things that I think a lot of people misinterpret about home-schooling is the social aspect. I have, as a college professor, had a number of kids who were home-schooled, and you wouldn’t necessarily know the difference. Dispel the myth about the idea that home-schooling means that your kid is going to be some weirdo sitting at home who never interacts with anybody. Talk about how you can still have a fully functionally social life for your child, even if they’re being taught at home.
What we fail to really address a lot of times is that in traditional schools…we fail to be real about how segmented children’s time is, how even during lunchtime and recess a lot of times you have children complaining because they can’t talk during lunch. And when we even talk about home-schooling, the practice is really dependent on the family themselves. And very rarely do you find Black families replicating a traditional type of school setting that you will find in a school.
So learning moves from being this lecturer, I’m in a desk, books and pens. During COVID-19, what became very popular was the pandemic pods. But for years, for decades, home-schooling families have done what is called cooperatives. Let’s say that me and three other parents want to teach our children all together, but we take turns. So you have these very organic gatherings that happen, but also home-schooling families taking advantage of everything from the offerings in their state, from parks and recreation, local clubs, and even some states allow for home-schooling students to still be involved in the sports that are offered by the schools. So it really is dependent on the family, is dependent on where the family is located, because state policies differ throughout the nation so that there’s really no federal home-schooling mandate. So what you may find, or be allowed to do in one state, may differ from another.
Your early education shaped your vision about what education for Black children should look like and what it does look like today. So can you tell us a little bit about your early education? What inspired you when you were a child? Were you home-schooled as a kid?
That’s a great question, Jason, because that’s actually what the research shows as well, that many home-schooling parents home-school, a lot of it is influenced by their own experiences. No, I wasn’t home-schooled personally, but I’m the oldest of five children, and my mother did home-school my brother. And I’m significantly older than my siblings, and so when he was being home-schooled for middle school, I was a young adult. And that was really the first time that that even came into my consciousness as a possibility.
My mother was a mathematician. She was brilliant, and so learning was fundamental in my home. I look at all of that as influencing, not necessarily the decision to home-school, but the decision of looking at learning as being flexible. So it could be in any type of space, any manifestation that we can create and that works best for our family.
What kinds of things do you hear that Black families are able to teach their kids at home that they cannot get in a public school?
Oh wow, that is such a nuanced question. I appreciate that because it allows me to speak to these so-called soft skills that we always hear about, and which are really fundamental to our human experience. So, when we talk about the ability to communicate, when we talk about knowing what your strengths are, knowing about these relationships that you speak of, a lot of that really relies on having body agency, right?
You really can’t have a clear idea about what your strengths and interests are, how you relate to other people, unless you have agency to engage in these types of interactions with self and with others. And consistently the message that I was receiving from the young people that I interviewed for my study is that “With home-schooling, I was able to find out what it is I do well, what it is I like. I was able to focus on the things that maybe I wasn’t that strong in, but I had more time in. Or, this is something I really like, and I can just go as far ahead as I want.” And these are the things that they looked at as preparing them for some of those spaces that we have labeled as being the determinants of success.