For Some Black Parents, the New Home Room is Home

Public schools are failing black boys, say a growing number of parents who are homeschooling

There are cello classes for Tau at the Brooklyn Music School. Deion is interested in video-game design. The boys have taken classes in rock climbing, Japanese sword fighting, architecture, American sign language, film, and acting since they began homeschooling. And last year they completed and screened a film project they worked on with other black homeschooled children from Brooklyn African-American Homeschooler Connections, a support group that Robinson joined.

"The boys, we travel," says Robinson. "We've gone down to the science museum in Baltimore. Last year, Tau and I went up to Montreal for our French immersion." But then, she's always been immersing her son in higher learning—while earning her master's degree from Pratt Institute, Robinson brought Tau to class. He was five then.

During a two-hour conversation at Bread Stuy, Tau and Deion barely lift their heads from their laptops. But it's clear they're listening; they throw out corrections to Robinson or remind her of specific anecdotes to share.

Deion Terry Rhoden, P. Aurora Robinson and her son Tau Issa Robinson-Farrar holding class in Bread-Stuy, a Beford Stuyvesant café.
Stacy Kranitz
Deion Terry Rhoden, P. Aurora Robinson and her son Tau Issa Robinson-Farrar holding class in Bread-Stuy, a Beford Stuyvesant café.

"One of the biggest problems that parents have out there," Robinson says, "is that their children are so sneaky that they have no safe space. Now, with all his nonsense on YouTube, and—what's the other one?"

"It's called MySpace, Mom," says Tau, who wasn't allowed to have an e-mail address until last year, and only after he sent out a message informing his friends and their parents that he was going to respect his new freedom by not abusing it.

Later, while the boys were working, a woman burst into the coffeeshop and asked to use the telephone, startling everyone. Trailing behind her was a young Latino boy making a long face.

"They're across the street beating up on him, and the security guard is just standing there!" The woman was handed a phone by a waiter who looked like he experienced this kind of thing all the time.

"Who can you call?" she asked as she handed the phone to the boy.

"My father." He dialed the number and asked for his father. He didn't go into detail about getting his face pounded, or that he'd suffered further embarrassment by being dragged by a strange woman into Bread Stuy.

"See, that's what I'm talking about. They used to chase him home from that school every day last year," says Robinson, pointing to Deion. "That's why we pulled him out of that school."

After the boy's phone call, his benefactor took him in hand. "I'm going to walk you home, OK?"

"A parent has a right to homeschool," says Lillian Garelick, the Department of Education's director of mandated responsibilities. "We can't say, 'No, you can't.' We're not in a position to say this is a good thing. The number who do homeschool is relatively small. From a fiscal perspective, it's not that large."

New York, in other words, considers the phenomenon so limited that it's not worth really worrying about. Which is much different than the situation in California, where a recent court decision has homeschooling parents enraged. A state appellate judge found that in order to teach at home, a parent needs to have the same credentials as a teacher at a public or private school. And not only would parents need a teaching certificate, but they would also need to submit lesson plans to the state for approval.

"This kind of ruling is meant to keep [the teaching] industry thriving. As an educator, I find it sad to accept that people believe that parents should not be capable of educating their children," says Robinson, who in addition to teaching Tau and Deion also conducts GED courses at City College. "Why are we, as parents, supposed to trust educators when they cannot extend the same courtesy to parents?"

Jennifer James is a mother in North Carolina who chose to homeschool her children and also founded the National African-American Homeschoolers Alliance. "African-American homeschooling is definitely growing all over the coutry," she says, estimating that black children make up about 10 percent of the nation's 150,000 homeschooled kids. "I suspect it's because more and more African-American families have finally realized that home education is an option for every American family, regardless of race or socioeconomic status."

Parents that the Voice talked to listed various reasons for pulling their kids out of New York's schools—the lack of resources and diverse curriculums, overcrowding, violence, and an emphasis on standardized testing and not individual achievement. Combine those concerns with financial limitations that can make private school an unattainable option and you have more black families teaching their kids at home.

Not that the public schools aren't at least trying to address the concerns of black parents about their boys. Clyde Cole is the founding principal of the Academy of Business and Community Development, an all-boys public school serving grades six through 12 that was built to address fears that the school system was failing black boys.

"It's not that [all] boys don't do well; it's that many of them don't do well," says Cole. "Getting up without permission to do whatever—look at what your friend is doing, throw something in the garbage—all of those kinds of things boys typically do is unacceptable now." But besides the behavioral problems, Cole says that schools have been doing a poor job because of today's emphasis on standardized testing, which limits what teachers can do. Understanding the unique needs of boys, the ABCD Academy spends a great deal of time and resources to instill a moral code, character development, and social skills. "I think that schools that focus on character development serve students better in the long run. Kids that come with 'home training' tend to do better. If kids don't come with that, they don't know what to do. It's not that boys are worse-trained at home, but their behavior stereotypically is not conducive to the 'little red schoolhouse' mantra."

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