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While the school system continues to grapple with its problems, some black families are planning well ahead of time to keep their kids away from it, preparing to homeschool their children from birth.
On a weekday afternoon, Mocha Moms of Harlem, a support group for stay-at-home mothers, is having a play date in the nursery of Abyssinian Baptist Church. The chapter's co-chairs, Felicia Bradford and Christine Garrison, have already begun plans to homeschool their sons coming this fall. Having both worked in the public-school system, they believe it would be a bad fit for their sons. "I don't want anyone to kill his quest to learn," says Bradford, a mother of two boys ages three and a half years and eight months. "For black boys, expectations are so low. I just want him to be able to function and learn more about his culture."
"Public schools that are good are few and far between," says Garrison. "I remember working in schools and thinking, 'If I ever had a child, I would never send them to public school.' " She met parents who were teaching their own children and says she started wondering if she had the skills to do that herself. She eventually decided that she does, and she and Bradford have recruited other families to join their future school, which will be located in Bradford's home.
"I'm nervous," admits Bradford. "When you homeschool, you push your kid a little bit more." Their planned curriculum will offer classes in yoga, African-American history and the African diaspora, plus swimming and karate. "When I got pregnant, I decided I was staying home. In Harlem, there's a white-teacher influx; they think they are here to save us." Bradford's husband, ironically, is a math teacher in a public school; Garrison's husband is a minister. Together, they agree that homeschooling is what they plan to do until at least the fourth or seventh grade. Afterwards, they are open to having their sons attend public school. "My son's first teacher needs to be black," says Bradford.
Other black parents are forming connections through homeschooling. Yoidette Erima founded Parents as Primary Teachers, a free program that offers music, art, and storytelling classes. She's a mother of two young boys anda former teacher. "As I prepared to have children, I didn't think public or private school was best," says Erima. "We need to improve the public-school system—I'm not promoting letting it go. Most parents can't deal with not working." Erima and her husband live in Bedford-Stuyvesant and are self-employed; she runs PPT, and he's a community economic-development lawyer. They seem like ideal people to take on the tough job of teaching their own children.
But does this mean that anyone can do it?
In the back row of a darkened screening room, Stephanie Green is taking notes. A couple of times a week, she screens films, describing herself as a freelance entertainment reporter and movie critic. The flexibility of her part-time work, Green says, gives her the time to homeschool her 14-year-old son, Talon, even though she's a single parent. On busy days, when she can't get home until the evening, she checks on his progress by mobile phone.
"Did you finish reading the book?" she asks when her son calls to give her an update while she's out having lunch. "OK, well, you can go outside now."
Prior to having Talon, Green worked at Nickelodeon, where she sometimes dressed as the network characters for publicity events. Today, she picks up freelance PR work and event-planning assignments. Like Robinson, a family friend, she's a native of Brooklyn and a product of the public schools. The two women are the same age and began homeschooling their children at the same time, but with different resources. It's been several years since Green has held a full-time job, and she's learned to stretch a dollar. "I can't stop doing my work, even though I don't have the school materials I need for him."
Except for a short time when her son was in the second grade, Green gave up working entirely while Talon went from kindergarten to sixth grade so she could be with him at school every day, becoming an unpaid parent volunteer. She worked at the main office, assisted teachers, and did whatever else it took to be near her son.
Green says she named her son after Chrysler's sports coupe the Eagle Talon, but pronounces his name tuh-LOHN. The kid's big for his age, and when he speaks it's easy to imagine that he's older than his 14 years. Like most teen boys, he's something of a know-it-all, but charming. And what he has to say about the public-school system so completely fits his mother's views, it's hard to tell if he actually came up with those ideas himself or is just repeating what Stephanie told him. The two are almost preternaturally close, hanging out together and even dressing alike, with matching baseball caps, jackets, book bags—all of it swag from the films that Green screens.
Talon spends his days at home working on whatever assignments Green can pull together with borrowed textbooks, information from websites, trips to the public library. She can't afford something like the Calvert system, and, unlike Robinson's students, Talon isn't taking on many outside activities. But he seems content with his situation. When Green is asked whether Talon has friends, she says, "Talon never had a lot of friends. I don't know—you'd have to ask him."