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Concerns about racism help drive more African-Americans to home-school

Jan 4, 2016

Brandon Kirksey, 7, is home-schooled
Credit Gabrielle Emanuel / Michigan Radio

On a quiet street in Detroit, light pours in the back windows of the Kirksey home. It falls on a wall of textbooks, puzzles and multi-cultural children's books.

Brandon, who is 7 years old, is sprawled out on the wood floor examining a laminated world map.

“Michigan,” Brandon says, pointing enthusiastically to his home state. His 3-year-old brother, Zachary, tries to echo him. Their mother, Camille Kirksey, coaches Zachary on the correct pronunciation.

This might seem like a classic weekend scene, but it’s a weekday scene. That’s because this isn’t just a family home, it’s also a tiny school. A school for one. For Brandon.

Brandon's two younger siblings, Zachary and 10-month-old Ariyah, tag along for the fun.

For three years, Camille Kirksey has home schooled her children. They are part of a growing number of African-American families choosing to home-school.

In the U.S., home-schooling is one of the fastest growing forms of education. The number of kids in charter schools and the number of kids being home-schooled are comparable. Each hovers around 2 million.

However, research suggests that African American families choose to home-school for very different reasons than white families. It often has to do with how African American children are treated in school. That was the case for the Kirksey family.

In their household each school day starts with yoga in the back room. Then, the Kirkseys move to the dining room, where bowls of fruit mix with stacks of books. From there, they do poetry recitation, reading and math. And Fridays are reserved for field trips and science experiments.

Kirksey says until a few years ago, home-schooling hadn’t even occurred to her.

“I've never seen anybody, especially black people, home-schooling,” Kirksey remembers.

At the time, Brandon was enrolled in a private pre-K program.  

“It was a mostly black school with mostly white teachers, which didn't really bother me until I saw the difference in how they treated certain kids, especially boys,” says Kirksey. “They were harsh – kind of barking at them, ordering them around.”

Brandon recalls that his teacher “didn't really treat anybody nicely.”

Kirksey says this matches a pattern where African-American children aren’t given the kindness she thinks kids need.

“It's not something I want my kids to have to deal with,” she says.

That's when Kirksey saw a post on Facebook profiling an African-American home-schooling family in Colorado. She'd never thought about it before. But it wasn't long before she'd convinced her husband, quit her job of 10 years, and started teaching.

Camille Kirskey home schools her children
Credit Gabrielle Emanuel / Michigan Radio

She says she was particularly excited because she could teach her kids a version of history that features their own ancestors. 

“As black people, I really want my children to understand that we are a huge part of history that is not always told,” says Kirksey. They are starting a unit on African kingdoms this month.

The other thing that got her excited was that education became a whole community affair.

“Just like in African culture, the village is the community, is the extended family,” says Kirksey. “My husband's father is an engineer. So I said, ‘I want you to take the oldest and teach him these things.’ ”

It's not just relatives. They also found a local co-op full of other home school families, most of whom are African-American.

But Kirksey is quick to point out that this decision wasn't just about race and racism. She says it's also a lifestyle choice. The family can now have family meals together, the kids can explore their interests freely and, Kirkey says, it allows the family to bond.

“That's really important to us. So, that's kind of why we turn our life all the way around to make this happen,” she explains.

Roughly 220,000 African American families now home-school in the U.S., according to Ama Mazama.

“It is a dramatic increase,” says Mazam, who is a professor at Temple University in Philadelphia. “A few years ago the numbers were much, much lower.”

Mazama says African-American home school families tend to be urban, two-parent households that are relatively well off and well educated.

It's hard to get concrete numbers, but Mazama did a qualitative study that looked at why families choose to home school.

For white families, it’s often about religion. However, for African-American families, Mazama explains, “the number one complaint is the racism.”

Mazama says African-Americans have spent generations fighting for access to good schools. And now, some of them have reached the conclusion that they can do a better job than traditional schools.