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Saturday, April 20, 2024

They Rage-Quit the School System—and They're Not Going Back

It’s easy to homeschool in Texas. A cursory search leads to a step-by-step guide for withdrawing your kid from the school system. Plug a few bits of information into a templated letter, send to a district administrator, and voila! You’re running a school, and everything your kid learns is entirely up to you.

“It was so nerve-racking,” says Sarahi Espitia, a mom of four in McKinney, Texas, a suburb north of Dallas. After a grueling spring of remote learning, Espitia began homeschooling her kids at the start of the 2020 school year. As a graduate of public schools, she felt like she had just plunged her family into the unknown. “We’re so used to going to school.”

Except that the definition of “going to school” had been radically upended by the Covid-19 pandemic. Campuses closed abruptly, while children and teachers struggled mightily with online learning. Espitia, who also helps run the family’s restaurant, was left to navigate confusing new platforms, screen-time fatigue, and endless technical malfunctions for four children. Her kids were 10, 8, 6, and 3; her youngest, a preschooler, didn’t even know how to use a mouse yet. By the end of the year, Espitia says, her “kids were crying.” Wearied by online learning, yet wary of letting her children return to in-person learning, she turned to homeschooling—just for the year, just until things got back to normal.

The country appears to be on the verge of going back to normal—her district’s schools have been open for months—but Espitia’s kids won’t be going back to traditional school. Over the past year, she was able to shift her kids’ learning schedule outside of the weekday lockstep; because her husband works on weekends, she treats Mondays like a weekend, where kids have less “school” and everyone can spend more time together as a family. She liked that she could teach her kids more Mexican history than they learned in schools. Last year, she joined a Latinos Homeschooling Facebook group, where families share resources such as Spanish children’s books and curriculum ideas. Next school year, she plans to keep teaching her kids herself.

Espitia is a part of a wave of parents and caregivers who withdrew their children from US public schools and elected to homeschool because of the pandemic—and she’s part of a group that isn’t going back. The crisis gave rise to a diverse swath of families that are using tech to totally customize their kids’ learning, and they might even change what “going to school” means in the post-pandemic world.

A More Diverse Class of Homeschoolers

While homeschooling is legal in all 50 states, it has never been considered the American norm. In 2019, homeschooled students represented just 3.2 percent of US students in grades K through 12, or around 1.7 million students. By comparison, 90 percent of US students attend public school. But a March 2021 report from the US Census Bureau indicates an uptick in homeschooling during the pandemic: In spring 2020, 5.4 percent of surveyed households reported homeschooling their children (homeschooling being distinct from remote learning at home through a public or private school). By fall 2020, the figure had doubled to 11.1 percent.


The pandemic may also have given rise to a more diverse group of homeschoolers. In 2012, 84 percent of homeschool families were white. The US Census Bureau’s survey indicates that homeschooling rates increased across all ethnic groups in the past year, and the greatest shift was among Black families, who reported a 3.3 percent rate of homeschooling in spring 2020 and 16.1 percent later in the fall.

“Covid-19 was the publicist for homeschooling,” says Khadija Ali-Coleman, a longtime homeschooling parent and a researcher who studies African American homeschool students. In April 2020, Ali-Coleman and researcher Cheryl Fields-Smith cofounded the Black Family Homeschool Educators and Scholars network to connect researchers and the handful of Black homeschool families they had met through their research. But what began as a small Facebook group climbed to over 1,000 members, including many families new to homeschooling.

Families shared a number of forces that drove them away from public and private schools. Some were exhausted by the glitchy mayhem of remote learning. Other BFHES families pulled their children from schools after they overheard how teachers spoke to their children, admonishing students who didn’t maintain eye contact or keep cameras on.

For parents unhappy with Covid-era education, homeschooling could seem like a respite from struggling public and private schools and an opportunity to reclaim a part in their kids’ learning. Ali-Coleman points out that the pandemic was the catalyst that pushed parents to seriously consider what they really wanted their kids’ educations to look like, the roles they wanted to play as parents, and the options they had outside the default educational institutions.

This is where online homeschool communities like BFHES come in: Virtual communities make alternative forms of schooling, like homeschooling and pandemic pods, more accessible for more parents looking outside the neighborhood school. If researching how to start a homeschool is as easy as a Google search, then finding a group of similar-minded families for support and advice is just a few more clicks away.

Online communities based on cultural and racial groups have been key to attracting and informing families who don’t fit the white, isolationist homeschooler stereotype. BFHES hosts free virtual skill-share workshops on topics like homeschooling children with special needs or managing homeschooling while earning an income. The stories on the Facebook page turn the nebulousness of homeschooling into something more tangible. If this family that looks like me can make it work, why can’t I?

If Covid-19 was the publicist for homeschooling, then the internet is the connecting force that binds longtime homeschoolers and the new crop of wired, inspired parents. And if the stereotype of homeschoolers is white, reclusive, and conservative-to-cultish, the online communities that grew over the course of the pandemic constitute a far more diverse, modern rebuttal.

The One-Room Schoolhouse of the Future

Technology hasn’t just helped a more diverse set of parents start to homeschool—it has given parents a curricular blank canvas, free from the parameters of institutionalized education. “There is absolutely no one way that folks are homeschooling,” Ali-Coleman says. “And what parents are finding is this level of flexibility that doesn’t exist within these traditional school settings.”

Homeschooling regulations vary across states. Texas requires teaching only reading, math, spelling and grammar, and “good citizenship.” Parents don’t need to keep records of their children’s learning. In Massachusetts, a state with more rigid rules around homeschooling, a parent must submit annual notices of intent to homeschool, a written plan for approval by the district, and proof of learning progress, which might include progress reports, dated work samples, or standardized tests.

But when it comes to actually deciding how to allot each hour in a child’s learning day, parents are pretty much given carte blanche. This could be a barrier for parents considering homeschooling: Building a curriculum from scratch can be daunting, especially when you multiply the effort for each kid. But especially in the extremely online Covid era, curriculum resources are as bottomless as the internet itself. Parents describe their homegrown curriculum design the way one might rattle off a cocktail recipe: practice worksheets from ABCMouse.com, videos from TED Talks for Kids, and a few minutes of the Happy Learning YouTube channel, for garnish.


The expansiveness of online resources, combined with offline, parent-led activities, lets parents more closely tailor their kids’ learning time to their own values. Cheryl Vanderpool, a new homeschooling parent in the Atlanta area, is using OutSchool.com to help her sons learn Tagalog. Tagalog classes weren’t offered at the private school they attended before; now she can use tech and the flexibility of homeschooling to give her sons a stronger connection to their Filipino heritage. “I like the idea of presenting material to my kids that’s not necessarily the colonized experience,” says Vanderpool.

If anything, it’s the abundance, not the lack, of homeschool resources that parents might find overwhelming. Online homeschool communities are helpful here, too. While Google can serve up an infinitude of worksheets and websites and YouTube videos, resources vetted by other parents can help families narrow down their options. Vanderpool is part of an Asian American homeschoolers Facebook group, which shares resources on children’s books and organizes co-op–style classes that connect families across the country.

Others are striking out to build entire microschools of their own. The promise of a blank canvas appealed to Ivi Kolasi, a parent in Berkeley, California. She and her husband work in tech. Kolasi’s two older stepdaughters, in the sixth and 10th grades, were in public school, and she was already skeptical of traditional classroom learning. The pandemic hit just as her youngest daughter was entering preschool. Could the pandemic be Kolasi’s chance to set her on a different path?

Over the past year, she researched alternative schooling movements, the kinds with lofty names like Democratic schools and maker education. She teamed up with three other preschool families, hired a private teacher, and set up a microschool in her sun-filled attic. On any given school day, the children visit the Oakland Zoo, tend their hydroponic garden, or re-create Yayoi Kusuyama’s dot artwork with multicolored stickers on the wall of the “obliteration room.” Kolasi hopes to expand in the coming years—to move the classroom out of her home, recruit more students, hire a Mandarin instructor, and give her child the years of expansive, creative educational experience that Kolasi has dreamed of.

Uncertainty for Public Schools

As more school-aged youth get vaccinated and the promise of normal life looms, it’s worth asking who is actually able to keep homeschooling. Are homeschools and microschools a viable option for middle- and lower-income families? And if privileged families withdraw from public schools, will low-income students (who also disproportionately tend to be students of color) be left in schools that become even more starved for funding than they already are?

Public school advocates are “absolutely” worried about the possibility of enrollment drops, says Dan Domenech, the executive director of the American Association of Superintendents. Districts receive a certain amount of money per enrolled student: For instance, Berkeley Unified public schools, where Kolasi’s older daughters are enrolled, receive $19,471 per student. So precipitous drops in enrollment can have dire financial consequences for public school districts.

But besides trying to incentivize families to return to school with continued remote learning options, there isn’t much of a concerted effort for school districts to attract families who have left to homeschool or have sent their kids to private school. “Where there are parents who have the financial means, then that’s their choice,” says Domenech. “But who goes to public schools? Predominantly the children who can’t afford private schools.”

But Ali-Coleman, of Black Family Homeschool Educators and Scholars, warns against over-emphasizing the limitations of low-income families. She says that not all homeschooling families are necessarily financially privileged, either, pointing to Fields-Smith’s research on single Black mothers who homeschool their kids in spite of low-income status. Moreover, adequately funded public school systems can still harm children of color: More money won’t shield a child from unequal discipline, a biased curriculum, or a pervasive school-to-prison pipeline that disproportionately pushes Black youth out of schools and into criminal justice systems.

The pandemic’s new crop of homeschoolers could also benefit public schools. The Covid-19 pandemic has set up something of a wild, living experiment in education. Ashely Jochim, a senior researcher at the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, has been studying the pandemic-born phenomenon of learning pods, the clusters of families who partnered to share schooling responsibilities—a pandemic one-room schoolhouse. Right now, the Center on Reinventing Public Education is working with six school districts to experiment with ways that learning pods and homeschool co-ops could help schools, families, and community organizations collaborate, including ways that districts might help families combine homeschooling and classes from the district. Other districts might use flexible school funding models like Education Savings Accounts to provide more individualized support for low-income students. After Covid-19 closed Edgecombe County Public Schools in North Carolina, for example, the district set up small learning pods for students who lacked broadband access, a program that could outlast the pandemic.

“The pandemic broke the rules on what school looks like: where learning occurs, when it occurs, who is performing the role as teacher or facilitator,” says Jochim. Will families stick with their homeschooling setups? Hard to say. Many pandemic pods, Jochim says, were supplemental and still followed their public school’s curriculum; these pods are likely to return to school. Some parents of younger children are considering going back to public or private schools for high school, when the complexity of college prep starts to shape a child’s curriculum.

Sarahi Espitia, the Texas parent, is excited to continue homeschooling next year. Her decision to homeschool gave a sense of freedom in a year when everything seemed out of control, when parents and caregivers felt pressured to somehow make ends meet and keep their kids safe while the world was falling apart around them. She’s glad that the pandemic presented her an opportunity that she might never have taken otherwise.

“It makes me feel proud of myself,” she says. “It makes me feel like I did something right.”

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