A new wave of pioneers is sweeping onto the home schooling trail. After decades of promises that the public school "system" holds the key to success, some African-American families are finding, like those of other ethnicities, that an increasingly centralized system and social decay are fast dissolving the bonds of their culture and families. And many have found a way to reconnect and restore those bonds by home schooling—an educational path so old and overgrown that it's considered radical and cutting edge.
1. a person who is among those who first enter or settle a region, thus opening it for occupation and development by others.
2. one who is first or among the earliest in any field of inquiry, enterprise, or progress: pioneers in cancer research.
Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary, Second Edition, © 1998.
"Anecdotal evidence is definitely increasing—more Black families are attending conferences, joining or starting support groups, and showing up in the news media," says Dr. Brian Ray, president of the National Home Education Research Institute.
"Although we do not have any current studies that clearly show an increase in the number of African-American home schoolers, based on my own and other's research," he continued, "I estimate that 30,000 to 50,000 African-American children are home schooled today. As I talk with Black home schoolers, they tell me that minorities have concluded that government-run schooling has failed them. For 50 years, since the Brown v. Board of Education (Supreme Court case), minorities, especially Blacks, have been told that public schools would 'save them.' They now recognize that state-run education has not and never will save them."
Setting off into new territory
The Burges family (left to right): Candace (16), Lawrence (17), Joyce, Candra (12), Victoria (5), and Eric, Sr. Lawrence and Candace are both in college now. (Not pictured: Eric, 24, married and working in Washington, DC.)
Joyce Burges can identify with that feeling of striking out all alone into unknown territory: "When we started home schooling 12 years ago, I didn't know even one other family in our town who was home schooling."
The Burges' eldest son, Eric, then 14, was in a magnet public high school for gifted students. But he was failing—in more than grades. "We were losing our son," said Joyce. "His confidence was lacking, his spirit was literally dead—it was horrible."
The school recommended keeping Eric back a year or sending him to another school across town. "I am sorry, miss, but neither of those choices is something I will do. I will home school my son," Joyce responded firmly.
Looking back, she realizes, "I had no idea what I was saying. I hadn't read a thing about it. All I knew was that five years before we had known one home schooling family. They had planted the seed of this idea. They had since moved away, but that "seed" opened up a whole new world for our family."
Joyce took Eric "under her wing" for a year, making extensive use of the local library. The next year, the Burgeses brought their three youngest children home. Since then, "It's been a whirlwind," Joyce said with a smile. "I think home schooling has done more for me than for my children."
Shortly after they began home schooling, the Burgeses joined their statewide home school organization, Christian Home Educators Fellowship of Louisiana (CHEF). They served as board members for over eight years, Eric as CHEF president the last three years. The Burgeses credit CHEF with being "pivotal" in their starting NBHERA, and Eric continues to serve on the CHEF board as immediate past president.
When asked what she values most from her years of home schooling, Joyce thoughtfully replied, "Mainly the closeness we have as a family. I want each of my children to experience this wonderful blessing. My husband calls it a 'lifeline.'"
"Black families have always valued education—this is one of the reasons many Black families taught and teach their children at home," home schooling mother Joyce Burges of Baker, Louisiana, told the Court Report. Joyce and her husband Eric Burges founded the National Black Home Educators Resource Association (NBHERA) in July 2000. "Black families felt and still do feel that an education is the door to our people's freedom. Many Black families across the nation are returning to the old fashioned method of teaching learned years ago from our ancestors."
Yet even as the number of Black home schooling families is growing, it is becoming increasingly apparent that "something" is keeping this educational alternative from sweeping through the African-American community. In the last achievement test/family demographics study Home School Legal Defense Association commissioned in 1998, we were surprised to see that of the 20,790 respondents to our random sampling only .8% were Black. The largest home school minority groups were American Indians (2.4%) and Asian (1.2%).1 Less than 1% seems a small number when researchers estimate that 3-4% of all school-aged children nationwide are home educated.2
What is that "something?"
Deciding to home school brings inherent challenges to any family, of any ethnicity. Every loving, dedicated parent experiences the qualms, hears the little voice inside asking "can I do this?," "what if I ruin my child's life?," and "is it really legal?" And most families run into some opposition from friends or family members.
But African-American families face other obstacles as well. "A lot of them feel that they will be betraying their people if they home school," explained Joyce. Black Americans who were part of the civil rights movement, who remember the struggle to gain a place at the table of public education, find the idea of their children or grandchildren trading in that seat for a chair at the kitchen table tantamount to a slap in the face.
The flip side of the civil rights movement is the deeply-rooted sense of helplessness so many African Americans feel, initially resulting from slavery and prejudice and reinforced by well-intentioned government programs. Gilbert Wilkerson, founder of the Network of Black Homeschoolers, explains his goal—"I want to help Black people come out of the mentality that we've been sold, that's been ingrained in us, that we've been so cemented in for years and years. My goal, not only with home schoolers, but with all African-Americans, is to bring them up to a higher level of thinking. 'I know we can do better. We have the courage, the strength, the spirituality, the economics—everything we need within the Black community. Why are we waiting around for somebody else, like the government and others, to give us a hand for something we can do ourselves?"
"NBHERA seeks to break down stereotypes. Our slogan is home schooling that J.A.M.S. —joining America's multi-cultural society!"
- J. Burges
A related problem is leadership. Gilbert pointed out that "Blacks don't tend to move in a direction where we see no Black faces. Someone needs to pioneer the way and put a face to home schooling. A good example is Tiger Woods in golf. Black kids now want to play golf just because of Tiger Woods. He put a face on golf."
A rewarding journey
The Wilkerson family (clockwise from top left): Gilbert Wayne, Jr. (17), Garris (10), Gilbert, Sr., Galen Uriah (14), Gariel (2), and Gloria. Gilbert Wayne, Jr., graduated in June.
Home schooling veterans Gilbert and Gloria Wilkerson, of Richmond, Virginia, also started home schooling about 12 years ago. Gloria felt the Lord had given her a vision to home school, but Gilbert wasn't so sure initially. "I was a little against it when we first started," he said, "because our society was against it and I didn't know much about it."
But after the Wilkersons attended a Home Education Association of Virginia conference, Gilbert was sold. "It was seeing the parents, children—whole families together. They answered the question of socialization—children do not go to school to socialize, but they go to school to learn. Over the years, we've seen the spiritual benefits, too. I'm more convinced now of the value of home schooling than I've ever been."
"We are a very close knit family," Gilbert explained. "We have nurtured and brought our children up in the admonition of the Lord. It has given our children a sense of destiny and courage.
"Our reward is greater than what we could have worked on Wall Street for. Our children have grown up to be great kids, levelheaded, spiritually sound, and having the peace of God in their lives.
"We just had a commitment to raise our kids in the Lord. And God has honored that over the years. We can't write any books, saying this is how we did it, A,B,C. We don't have a formula. It's just been God's grace, as we sacrifice to raise our kids unto the Lord."
In 1998, the Wilkersons launched the Network of Black Homeschoolers, a national organization to help African-American pioneers connect and find resources.
Additionally, within the African-American community—especially the inner city—Black families are facing real difficulties. First, a lower income than that of the average white family often forces both parents to work, which rules out home schooling. Many African-American families are headed up by single parents, usually mothers, "who would love to home school, but they can't afford to," said Gilbert. "A lot of people are struggling just to survive."
"We tell people what we had to do when we started out: trust in the Lord with all thine heart, lean not unto your own understanding—He will provide. But it takes awhile for people, after they've been working and struggling all their lives, to simply trust God."
"Well, maybe there's something to it . . ."
". . . but where are all the African-American home schoolers?" Gilbert says that this is the next hurdle.
Families who began home schooling in the late 1970s and early 1980s can well remember the isolation they experienced as a result of their decision to home school. Most were the first home schoolers in their church or neighborhood. Many did not even know of another home schooler in their state. The home school support group system we know today grew out of that sense of isolation—the need to know "I'm not the only one doing this" and to be able to talk about their hopes and fears, joys and struggles.
African-American home schoolers know that feeling. Gilbert Wilkerson said of his own early home schooling experience, "We wanted to get together with other African-Americans and socialize—not that we're being discriminative against whites—it's just that we feel a camaraderie among our own brothers and sisters who understand us because of the way we grew up, the way our parents raised us, the way our culture is as African-Americans."
"If I had to talk about Black Americans on a national level—the challenge is finding another African-American family who home schools," agreed Joyce Burges. "Black Americans love what's familiar and want to be able to identify with another Black American. I think most people are that way. When I first joined a support group, of course, I was thinking, 'Are there any more Blacks?' But for years and years, my husband and I were the only Black home schoolers that we saw."
This sense of isolation is reinforced at home school conferences. "While representing the Network of Black Homeschoolers," said Gilbert, "we have gone to some conventions and found that we're the only African-Americans there, and we feel a little alienated. Sometimes people don't understand our culture in relating to us, because they're not around us, and that can be a difficulty, too."
"I want to be able to network African-American home schoolers together, find information for us, rediscover our roots and be proud of those roots, be proud of our culture."
- G. Wilkerson
And, unfortunately, African-American home educators sometimes run into white Christians who still seem to be prejudiced, "those who haven't had their minds renewed to how God wants us to be as a church," Gilbert said.
"Mom, were there kids like me who did this?"
Offering Resources, Finding Camaraderie
The Wilkersons, through the Network of Black Homeschoolers, and the Burgeses, through the National Black Home Educators Resource Association (NBHERA), are connecting African-American home schoolers.
Both groups are actively working to make access to African-American history and cultural resources easier for home schooling families.
For example, in a recent NBH newsletter, the Wilkersons published a list of Black inventors, Gilbert said. "A Black inventor invented the typewriter, the horseshoe, the helicopter, the machine for cleaning seed cotton, the food press, the hairbrush, the dust pan, the rail trace, and the letter drop mailbox—all those were invented by Black inventors, which our readers don't know anything about. We try to educate them, and help them feel proud of the history of Black America."
Upcoming NBHERA newsletters, Joyce says, "will feature topics such as 'How to Get on Mailing Lists.' I don't live in Washington, DC, but I get information from just about every museum in DC. I know that I will probably not visit all of them. But, just knowing what's going on, especially with the African-American Museum—how they update certain sculptures and pictures and why they do it—that's very informative for me. Then when we do have an opportunity to be there, we're already familiar with the museum and what's going on there.
"NBHERA also seeks to encourage Black American writers: I have written A Gentle Woman's Guide to Greatness and we are looking for other positive, family—oriented African-American authors. We will have a list of recommended Black speakers for convention workshops and will profile Black speakers in our newsletter."
See NBH and NBHERA contact information below.
Both families found a dearth of material on African-American history. "One of my challenges was finding good material—resources, books, music, and all the things I admired in Eurocentric curriculum—finding that in the Black culture was a challenge for me," Joyce said. "We're used to wonderful people like Frederick Douglass, George Washington Carver, Phyllis Wheatley, and all of those. But finding some modern—day characters and people who upheld those same values as Frederick Douglass and George Washington Carver—in essence, who are Christians or people of moral value—that was a big challenge."
A few years ago, as the Burges family was reading the Little House on the Prairie series, their daughter Candra asked, "Mom, are there books like this about African-Americans, Black Americans?"
What Candra really meant, said Joyce, was "Are there times Black Americans have struggles like this? Are there times when Black Americans were close like this with their families? Did my grandmother make jams and sew clothes and make quilts?"
"It was so important to her," Joyce explained. "She needed that identification with Black Americans. At this point, I began to tell her about my mother, my grandmother, and how my grandmother raised us on a farm. And all of the things they did that we saw in Little House on the Prairie—not the pioneer and crossing the western country, but everyday life. Then we found more resources like Pleasant Company's American Girl® books and doll 'Addy.' And, oh my goodness! When we bought an Addy doll, and Addy's hair was just like their hair, she became a hero in our house. They love her."
Disarming the myth
Gilbert Wilkerson distilled all of these issues into one succinct explanation: "it's not in our culture. If you do it, you are considered trying to be white. Until now, it has been seen as mostly a white thing, only white people did home schooling."
"Trying to disarm the myth that home education is a 'white-flight' thing has been a enormous challenge," Joyce said. "I have talked to many African-American legislators and educators about the value of home education and the good it's done my family. I asked 'What is the difference?'—I am educating my son. Why should you want to make it seem as if I'm a Benedict Arnold because I'm doing it in my home?
"I can still see myself pleading with certain African-American legislators, telling them, 'OK, you're looking at me. I am the same color as you. And I'm a home educator. I'm not a "token" of the white home educators as many of them have thought.' Most of them thought, and some of them still do, think that I was sent by the white race to lobby, that I wasn't doing it on my own, that I wasn't doing it because I felt the need to be there."
The trend toward exploration
"Future growth [in home schooling] could occur most rapidly among ethnic minorities. Though African Americans and other non-Caucasian groups are under-represented among homeschoolers, the next generation of minorities is seriously considering it. In a survey of selected classes at Vanderbilt University and Nashville State Tech (a selective private university and a two-year college), almost half (45.3 percent) of the African-American students said "yes" or "maybe" when asked if they would homeschool their own children in the future. Among other non-Caucasian groups, two-thirds indicated "yes" or "maybe." In contrast, less than one-fourth of the white students said this. The survey was small (254 students) and nonrandom, representing students enrolled in the classes of the researchers, whose influence was perhaps stronger among the non-Caucasian students. Nonetheless, the results are startling. Public educators who count on the loyalty of ethnic minorities as the backbone of their big-city clientele may be in for yet another surprise."
Patricia M. Lines, "Homeschooling Comes of Age," The Public Interest, no. 140 (Summer 2000): 74-85.
Surmounting the Barriers
Just this cursory overview of the obstacles Black home schoolers are facing seems daunting.
But this is a story of hope. The home school pioneers of the '70s and '80s overcame tremendous obstacles: hostile school districts, threats of jail or loss of their children, and harsh laws. So the Burgeses and Wilkersons, along with the other families we have highlighted on these pages, and many, many more across the U.S. are overcoming the barriers in their path.
These courageous families are stepping out in faith, some at great cost. But as they do so, they are providing a shining light for their as-yet-unconvinced friends, neighbors, and family members to follow. True leadership in action.
This is a story of opportunity. The home schooling movement as a whole can offer support and encouragement.
Gilbert explains, "As the numbers of Blacks home schooling have increased, they are still looking to connect with other African-American home educators. When they attend home education conventions, they look for but still rarely find African-American speakers on the platform. They are also looking to see how open the home schooling movement is towards Blacks as far as participating on the boards and being involved in leadership. When that opens up to us, it tells us 'Home schooling is open to all people.' It also says, 'We're wanted, we're needed, we're valuable!'"
"Set up some kind of booth in your exhibit hall that focuses on something just for Black Americans," Joyce encouraged. "Not just a little bit here or a little bit there, but something that focuses on them. For example, your theme could be "The Rich Contributions of Black Americans"—and display several books. I'm reading a book called Shades of Black, written by a husband and wife, that looks at the different colors of African-American children. It's beautiful. We were able to identify our daughter Candra's skin color. They talk about hair. My little five year old's hair is like a thick rope. These are some of the things that the book talks about. And I can see myself at an exhibit hall, looking through this book and just admiring it. When Eric and I go to the conferences this year, we will bring these kinds of books with us."
"If an organization is really interested in using home education as a means of ministering to Black Americans," the Burgeses added, " invite at least one Black American speaker to your conference. If other state organizations get that same vision, it would just be revolutionizing."
Lawrence M. Rudner, Ph.D., The Scholastic Achievement and Demographic Characteristics of Home Schooled Students in 1998, report prepared under contract with HSLDA, Purcellville, VA, 1999, p. 7.
Patricia M. Lines, "Homeschooling Comes of Age," The Public Interest, no. 140 (Summer 2000): 74-85.
Network of Black Homeschoolers
P.O. Box 28325
Richmond, Virginia 23228
Purpose: To unite, strengthen, encourage, inform, and update African-American home schoolers regarding issues, laws, and information in educating their children. NBH is a network designed to bring unity to the many African-American home schoolers through print, seminars, and conventions, to continue the proud heritage of the Black family by training in education, history, and culture.
Services: Membership provides newsletter and discounts to events, NBH materials, and conferences. NBH members share information on history and curriculum and develop friendships through the Internet, telephone, or support groups. Future plans include a database of African-American studies and inventors.
The Challenge: "Reaching across the subcultures within African-American community is difficult. There are different cultures within the culture. I live in a suburban white neighborhood, but I'm going back into the inner city and learning the culture. The kids use a different slang than the kids in the suburbs. It's a different world.
"My goal is to help families in the inner city to home school, to allow them to see African-Americans who are home schooling and how successful it is for them. 'Their families are blessed. Look at the maturity of their children. Wow! I want my kids to be like those kids.'"
- Gilbert Wilkerson
National Black Home Educators Resource Association
6943 Stoneview Ave.
Baker, Louisiana 70714
Newsletter is $35/year for four quarterly issues.
Purpose: To assist Black families nationwide who share the common responsibility of teaching their children at home by providing these families with resources and other materials to facilitate and maintain an efficient and effective home school environment.
Services: Offers information and services on: Getting started in home education.
Networking with national organizations and pairing new home schooling families with veterans.
Publications with current updates and information on state and national news and events affecting the nation's home educators.
Teaching materials and curriculum recommendations.
The Challenge: "NBHERA exists to be another voice in society that says, 'Families still work. Husbands still love wives. Wives still love husbands. And children's hearts still can be turned to the parents.' Now that's a tall order. It will take God to raise it up to that point.
"NBHERA is not membership because we want to feed people into the state organizations. The purpose is to bring the groups together, to actually see a multi-cultural group. Our slogan is home schooling that J.A.M.S.-joining America's multi-cultural society!"
- Joyce Burges