The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Home schooling exploded among Black, Asian and Latino students. But it wasn’t just the pandemic.

Tyce Yorke, 11, with his parents Tracie, left, and Shenan Yorke in their home in Hyattsville, Md., on June 30. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

When school buildings were shuttered last year, Torlecia Bates had not given much thought to home-schooling her two school-aged children. Like a lot of parents, Bates, who lives outside of Richmond, viewed remote schooling as a temporary inconvenience, and had plans of sending them back as soon as schools reopened.

Then something in her shifted.

Following the murder of George Floyd, Bates, who is Black, had a panic attack. She worried about the safety of her family. And she began to question whether the school her children attended was equipped to talk about racism with young students. Bates, who has a master’s degree in theology and is now a manager in the banking industry, did not learn about systemic racism until she was in college. Would her children have to wait that long, too, to understand the roots of injustice?

For Bates’s children, 10-year-old Kayden, 8-year-old Kaylee and 3-year-old Kayson, these lessons could not be more critical: The children are descendants of Sally Hemings, the enslaved woman whose six children were fathered by Thomas Jefferson, and they live not far from Monticello, the former president’s plantation.

“Dealing with everything that we’re dealing with — with the social climate, with the political climate, I could not see putting my kids back in school. I just could not,” Bates said.

So last summer she did something she had scarcely considered before: She decided to take her two older children out of school and teach them herself, all while caring for their younger sister.

As the new school year approaches, millions of parents are eager to deliver their children back to teachers and put remote schooling — which wrought anger, frustration and financial turmoil for parents who needed to return to work — behind them. But for other parents, particularly parents of color, the pandemic and last summer’s national reckoning over race prompted them to pull their children from traditional schools entirely, moves that helped fuel an explosion in popularity of home schooling.

The percentage of children in home schooling has nearly tripled since mid-2019. By May of this year, the U.S. Census Bureau found more than 1 out of every 12 students were being home-schooled.

Even more remarkable are where those gains came from: Even though home schooling has often been considered the domain of religious White families, the most significant increases were seen among Black, Latino and Asian households.

Between 2019 and May 2021, home-schooling rates jumped from about 1 percent to 8 percent for Black students — a more than sixfold increase. Among Hispanic students, rates jumped from 2 percent to 9 percent. The increase was less dramatic for White families, where home schooling doubled from 4 percent to 8 percent over the same time period. Between 2016, the year of the most recently available data for Asian American families, and May, home-schooling rates went from 1 percent to 5 percent.

As coronavirus vaccination rates rise and infection rates fall, educators hope Black, Latino and Asian parents — who had expressed the greatest reluctance to return to classrooms — will feel confident enough to put their children back in school buildings. But many have concerns that extend far beyond coronavirus safety issues, meaning the upswing could become permanent.

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What is driving the shift is difficult to parse, because of the dearth of research that focuses on Black, Latino and Asian families. But previous studies of Black home-schooling families found they were often pushed out of traditional school systems when their children encountered racist treatment in the classroom. In interviews, Latino families expressed similar concerns. And Asian families sought to influence their children’s cultural education.

In many cases, the migration from mainstream education shows the rising fears among parents of color that schools are failing their children, and the growing awareness of racial disparities in the treatment and outcomes for children of color. Inequality is still deeply embedded in the nation’s public schools, with yawning achievement gaps marking the performance between White and Asian students and Black and Latino ones. For parents already frustrated with their child’s education, the pandemic provided another reason to give home schooling a try.

“I feel like the school system is setting these kids up for failure, and I don’t want my child being a part of it,” said Jennifer Johnson, a former Baltimore schoolteacher who is now raising — and home-schooling — her 7-year-old cousin Donovan Bien. The underfunded city schools — where three-quarters of students are Black and at least 58 percent hail from low-income households — are emblematic of the kinds of schools Black children attend across the nation. “Baltimore City schools, ever since they have been established, have been advocating for adequate resources — buildings, materials. But we don’t have those things,” Johnson said.

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Bernita Bradley, an education activist in Detroit who works with the National Parents Union, said the pandemic lay in stark relief the disparities between the city and more affluent suburbs. After schools closed last March, suburban districts swung into action and started remote schooling while Detroit was still trying to get laptops to students.

“Our kids here were at a stalemate, and all we kept being told was ‘Give us time,’” said Bradley, who home-schooled her daughter for her senior year after a dismal start to virtual learning in the spring. “Seriously, it was devastating.”

Khadijah Z. Ali-Coleman, a scholar who is working on a book about Black home schooling, said many Black parents fear that some traditional public schools will exact a mental and psychological toll on their children.

“When we talk about being in spaces where our histories are continuously distorted or ignored, where a child cannot see themselves or their ancestors in the retellings of stories on how things have been created or develop, that is an assault on your mental state,” Ali-Coleman said. “Home schooling becomes a safe space.”

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Before the pandemic, research showed that Black home-school parents sought to escape a system that they believed treated their children unfairly. It was something Mahala Dyer Stewart, a sociologist and visiting professor at Hamilton College in New York, discovered when she interviewed Black and White home-schooling families within an unnamed Northeast metropolitan region as part of a study conducted from 2014 to 2016.

I had many stories of Black boys being framed by teachers in particular as violent or hostile when the mother didn’t see where that was coming from,” Stewart said in an interview. By contrast, White mothers were primarily concerned about catering to their child’s academic needs and never expressed anxiety that their children were being targeted. “It was totally different.”

The fear expressed by Black mothers is hardly unique to that community.

Tanya Sotelo is Latina and raising her family in a community east of Los Angeles. She and her husband began home-schooling their autistic son Fox, 8, this year in part because they began worrying about what would happen when the boy shed his “cuteness and smallness.” When Fox grew to be taller, would administrators perceive him as a threat when he is in the midst of a breakdown?

Her fears are rooted in data: Black and Latino children and special education students are overrepresented in suspensions, expulsions and school arrests, for reasons some attribute to racial bias.

“There was a lot of discussion about how disabled children are disproportionately given detention, suspended, disciplined, and how even in some states, you know, like school resource officers will actually handcuff or even take children, you know, put them in the squad car or whatnot,” Sotelo said.

Cheryl Fields-Smith, an education professor at University of Georgia who has conducted the most significant research on Black home-schooling families, said she worries about what traditional schooling — including the dearth of Black history — does to the psyche of a Black child.

She said the recent efforts to tamp down on how teachers talk about race — including passing laws that ban the teaching of “critical race theory” — concern her. “Cultivating a positive self identity for children of all races … means that we have to tell the truth about our history. It worries me that somebody is worried about that and they want to stop that,” Fields-Smith said. “Right now, we have to home-school because the way schools are, most of them — it’s tearing our children apart.”

Tracie Yorke was working at and also sending her son Tyce to an independent school in Virginia when the pandemic struck and forced the school to go remote. Then, as she processed her own anguish and fear after George Floyd’s killing, she decided she wanted her son to get an education that give him an understanding of and a deep sense of pride in his roots, and teach him why he would have to carry himself differently than his White peers.

“I really wanted something really focused strongly with social justice and a focus on African and African American culture and really addressing sort of the needs of students of color,” said Yorke, who now works as an educational consultant from her home in Hyattsville, Md.

So in the last year, Tyce has taken a hodgepodge of online courses that covered African creation myths, the intersection of science and race, and the history of Grandmaster Flash and turntablism. Instead of Spanish, he is learning Yoruba. She teaches him to challenge Eurocentric historical narratives — like the idea that Christopher Columbus “discovered” the Americas, a sprawling land mass that had been populated for at least 20,000 years before his arrival.

The nation’s racial reckoning prompted soul-searching for Christynn Morris, a mother of two whose own parents emigrated from the Philippines. And that soul-searching led her to decide to pull her daughters from the New Jersey private school where Morris had worked as a music teacher.

She said she was “just thinking about the kind of education the kids are receiving” and wondered, “Is their story even going to be a part of it?”

Come this fall, her daughters will take Tagalog and Filipino folk dancing lessons. And she enrolled them in the social-justice-oriented Black Apple virtual school.

For Bates, the mother from Virginia, home schooling has also brought a sense of freedom. Her children have a flexible schedule, allowing them to take breaks when needed. Her children can work on their own timelines instead of being tied to a classroom curriculum, taking breaks or spending more time on subjects that trip them up. She is intent on centering Black history in their education.

She had been worried that home schooling would overwhelm her and her husband. Instead, it seemed to have the opposite effect.

“For the first time in a long time,” Bates said, “I felt extremely liberated.”