By Anna Merlan
By Keegan Hamilton
By Albert Samaha
By Darwin BondGraham
By Keegan Hamilton
By Anna Merlan
By Anna Merlan
By Tessa Stuart
Say "homeschooling" and what tends to come to mind are the whitest people you know, holding Sunday school every day of the week in their basements, producing kids who can declaim against Charles Darwin for hours on end, but who are so screwed up socially that you can't imagine them getting a date, except years later as part of a group outing to Christian Day at Disney World.
So, with that admittedly over-broad stereotype in mind, it's something of a shock to see the lessons in progress at Bread Stuy, a small café in Brooklyn, where customers sip at their coffee and read newspapers, unaware that a woman named P. Aurora Robinson is holding a homeschooling class in their midst.
Her two teenagers, working at laptops, are tapping away at their writing assignments for the day. They're a little young for coffeehouse literary types, but otherwise look the part: Deion in a baseball cap, Tau wearing his hair in twists, both hunched over their screens, glasses resting on the tips of their noses. They're slender, studious, and seriously into their work.
And they're black.
Robinson, like a small but growing number of black parents, has chosen to take her son Tau out of the public-school system and teach him on her own (Deion is a cousin's child she's also teaching).
In the 2006–2007 school year, the city's Department of Education says that 3,654 students in New York were homeschooled. Most are white, but a growing number are African-American. Black parents tend to take their children out of the schools for other than religious reasons, and homeschooling groups say black children taught at home are nearly always boys. Like Robinson, some of New York's parents have concluded that the school system is failing the city's black boys, and have elected to teach them at home as an alternative.
Robinson's motives were even more specific: She wanted to cushion Tau from the serious culture shock of moving from rural Missouri to her hometown of Brooklyn.
She had been teaching in Springfield, Missouri, as a professor of architecture at Drury College, the only black member of the architecture faculty. Her son, meanwhile, was teased in the usual way for being one of the few black students in a white school. Tau says he had to explain to his teachers and fellow students that just because he was black didn't mean that he was from "the 'hood."
"Somehow, he was supposed to serve them better if he was more ghetto," says his mother. "We were out there on our own in the badlands."
Robinson decided she'd had enough of Missouri, left her job, sold her home, and brought Tau back to Brooklyn. To prepare her son for the change, she decided to teach Tau at home and live off her savings.
"I've been living off of my savings for two years, which has been interesting. But that is who I am. I'm capable of living off of my savings and enjoying life regardless of it," she says.
Tau would have been entering the seventh grade, but instead of sending him to school, she shelled out $1,200 for a full-year curriculum from a company called Calvert Education Services, which included textbooks and lesson plans. She had to make sure that Tau kept up with his counterparts at junior high school: In New York, children who are homeschooled must still meet public-school requirements. There are quarterly reviews and year-end tests that must be completed and reported to the DOE before a child can move to the next grade. And with the Calvert materials, Robinson felt Tau would keep up. And, of course, she could add her own preferences to what he was learning.
For the second year of his homeschooling, Tau was joined by Deion, a cousin, who had been attending P.S. 35, which is directly across the street from Bread Stuy, the coffeeshop that they use frequently. Comprising grades six through eight, P.S. 35 is 89 percent black, and until he was pulled out of it, Deion spent his seventh grade being chased home by bullies.
"When his parents requested a relocation to another school, they were given a letter saying, 'At this time we are unable to do this, and maybe in January we can re-evaluate the situation.' Now, I don't know about you, but at that point it meant, 'Oh, fuck you'," says Robinson.
So she has taken on the teaching of both eighth graders in the coffeeshop near the school they would otherwise be attending.
Their assignment today was to write an essay describing the first time they had won while playing a video game. Another time, she asks them to describe the origin and definition of the slang word po-po, short for "police."
She tries to make the lessons fun and informative. "I have them reading books like The Other Toussaint," she says, referring to a biography of Pierre Toussaint, the Haitian slave who became a free—and rich—man in early-19th-century New York. "I want them to have a more Afrocentric perspective and understand who our writers were and how they come about documenting our history." She also takes the boys with her when she reads to young children at a bookstore, and as she participates in other community activities.
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.
"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."
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."
After 9/11, Green took Talon out of his Greenwich Village elementary school, a school with good resources and an inspiring environment, to P.S. 11 in Clinton Hill. She considered it a good school, but not up to the level of the Manhattan school. Meanwhile, as Talon entered the second grade, she took a full-time job. When she was later laid off, she returned to volunteering at his school as he completed his grammar-school education.
When it came time to decide on a junior high, she looked at two schools and found problems with both.
"The first, Satellite East, was just too far by the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and I didn't like the area," she says, pointing out that the Farragut Housing Projects were across the street. Her next stop was P.S. 35, the same school that Robinson's students, Tau and Deion, have opted out from. Talon didn't last a year. She pulled him out and began teaching him herself.
"I believe if you make a child, you raise that child," says Green. "Before kindergarten, he'd never been to a public parks—germs." She's unapologetic for what she understands others might perceive as a smothering nature. "If you have child, do you want them socializing with psychopaths?"
Green is petitioning the Department of Education to provide more materials and support for homeschooling families of limited means. "I can't afford a $250 program to get books and lessons," she says. "I'm in the process of writing a letter to [Schools Chancellor] Joel Klein to get products and books."
One of the few extracurricular programs that Green found for Talon recently was last year's New York Association of Journalists high-school journalism workshop. In a writing exercise, Talon revealed his thoughts on school in an essay entitled "My Life in the School System":
As of February 2006, I became a home-schooled student. My main career goal is to become a successful graphic artist. I also have interests in astrophysics, oceanography, geography, and biology. I also have a yearning to learn about prehistoric creatures, mainly dinosaurs, which I believe is called paleontology . . .
When I initially began school for kindergarten, I was 4 years old. I was the youngest student in my class (which at that time bothered me). I attended the Greenwich Village Elementary School, P.S. 41, located on 11th Street and 6th Avenue in Manhattan . . .
Due to the events of September 11th, I was soon transferred to P.S. 11 on Waverly Avenue in Brooklyn. My first response was fear because it was a new school and I had to make friends with people that were unfamiliar to me . . .
During the middle of sixth grade, my mother decided to take me out of the public school system in order to home-school me. The reason she took me out of the public school system is the debauchery that would take place on a daily basis at JHS 35. Many of the students would disrupt the class, often begin fights with each other, use profanity towards the teachers, etc. This she felt was immoral, and she choose to remove me from an environment that was not conducive to the manner in which she wanted me to be taught in . . .
Tau and Dieon want folks to understand that just because they are homeschooled, it doesn't mean they are freaks. "I hate explaining that I do get to do activities," says Tau. "I am not in the house all day working."
"I hate explaining that I do get to socialize," says Deion. Next fall, both boys look forward to attending high school. It's not exactly what Robinson wishes for them, but she is willing to defer to their wishes. "I think that I have learned more about my strengths and weaknesses and being able to handle different problems as they come to me," Deion explains.
"I'm interested in filmmaking, and I found a new school in Long Island City that specializes in careers in film and television," says Tau. "I will be one of 108 first-time students in this school—a wonderful opportunity."
Would they homeschool their own children? Deion answers, "I had never thought about homeschooling before my cousin told my parents about it. I looked at it as a relief from the pain I was having at P.S. 35, Decatur Middle School. If my children have any difficulty with school, I will make sure that I find a good place for them to learn and grow. I have been in private school also, and that doesn't always work either."
"Since I felt uncomfortable with the middle-school system, I felt pushed out, pushed upon, and very disappointed that people could be so rude and unfair," says Tau. "If my children in the future have the same issues, then I will have to make the learning experience comfortable and best for them. If homeschooling is the only option available, then I will give that to my children."