The New Face of Home Schooling ; More and More, African-American Families Redefine 'Homeroom'

Article excerpt

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. …

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