A Class of Their Own: African-American Homeschoolers in Philadelphia

A small subset of African-American homeschooling parents are fed up with an education system seen as broken and racist.

Ameenah Muhammad-Diggins guides daughter Amaya and son Anwar through a science lesson. | Photograph by Scott Lewis

Ameenah Muhammad-Diggins guides daughter Amaya and son Anwar through a science lesson. | Photograph by Scott Lewis

Ama Mazama, slight in stature and wearing a tightly fastened Ruth Bader Ginsberg ponytail, is revving up an Epson projector on a cold and rainy December morning. The head of graduate African-American studies at Temple University, Mazama — a self-chosen name that translates to “tender and violent love” — is both gentle and commanding at the head of a class. When she’s listening to you, the 48-year-old mother of three squints ever so slightly, as if not quite hearing you or not quite trusting your line of reason. But she politely guides you, in her French-Caribbean accent, to a logical answer nonetheless.

Mazama teaches a lesson on cognitive psychology in a classroom that looks ill-equipped for the task: devoid of whiteboards and desks, outfitted with drums and a piano. There’s commotion from a dog in the nearby kitchen. Only two pupils are present. The four of us are cloistered in the “music room” within Mazama’s three-story stone home in Germantown.

As she introduces today’s discussion topic — spiritual intelligence — I can’t help but think it’s a little heavy for her 10-year-old son, Kiamuya, and 13-year-old daughter, Tamu. Minutes later, the three are not only discussing an array of metaphysical ideas; they’re doing so bilingually, alternating “okay” with “d’accord.” Mazama’s kids scribble in their notebooks and exchange occasional giggles, the way children in the back of a traditional classroom would. But their curriculum is far from traditional, even by homeschooling standards.

Mazama is known nationally as an Afrocentrist scholar and linguist, a translator of Marcus Garvey, and, increasingly, one of the most prominent voices of an emerging segment of alternative education: black homeschooling. According to survey data by the National Center for Education Statistics, the overall homeschooling population has doubled from 850,000 in 1999 to more than 1.7 million in 2012 — including, say Mazama and other researchers, an unheralded group of African-Americans. When Mazama started teaching her oldest boy 13 years ago, she says, there was nothing by way of research on the topic. The assumption was that the motivations of homeschooling black Americans were no different from those of the two archetypal camps that were doing so: religious fundamentalists and crunchy-granola progressives.

“People assumed they were doing it for the same reason as white parents,” Mazama says. But once she started interviewing parents in seven regions across the country, she found otherwise. Black parents were nearly as likely to cite racism (24 percent) as their primary motivation as they were to blame the low quality of education in brick-and-mortar schools (25 percent). When Mazama dug deeper, interviewing parents one-on-one, she reached a more damning conclusion: “Racism was interwoven into every reason why they disengaged.”

By racism, she means not only bigoted name-calling, but the full gamut of marginalization within schools: the dearth of black teachers; the over-representation of blacks in special education and disciplinary actions; their under-representation in honor tracks; the Eurocentricity of curricula; the 15-point gap in high-school graduation rates between blacks and whites. But the data, however important, wasn’t as devastating as what Mazama heard. As much as parents want to believe in American education as the great equalizer, its infrastructure remains skewed for some to succeed and others to fail — or, at best, simply to get by.

“It’s not necessarily that they stopped believing in quote-unquote the American Dream,” says Mazama. “It’s rather that because of the way things are set up now, their children don’t have enough of a chance to participate in that.”

SINCE 1993, WHEN homeschooling was legalized in all 50 states, the most vigorous lobbying force in everything from blocking state mandatory-testing laws to providing federal aid for college-bound homeschoolers has been the Home School Legal Defense Association. The nonprofit is a self-described “Christian organization” whose membership accounts for about 15 percent of homeschooling families. But the national visibility of the HSLDA — and its outsized presence in statehouses and the press — has fed a popular stereotype about which kids are being homeschooled: namely, those rocking Bible-camp t-shirts, or, if you’re a fan of tabloids, scandal-damaged pseudo-celebs like Josh Duggar. That image has endured even though an emphasis on religious and moral instruction has been declining as the primary motivating factor of homeschooling parents in recent years.

It’s estimated that more than three percent of the school-age population, or about two million American kids, are currently homeschooled. (Thanks to myriad challenges, precise demographic data on homeschoolers both here and across the country are hard to come by; the NCES plans to release specific figures early this year.) Today, 10 percent of all homeschoolers are black, according to the National Home Education Research Institute. Mazama’s research suggests many of the families of those children share a unique dissatisfaction with traditional education. What she’s found is playing out in our local courtrooms: Call it “diversity on the suspension roll but not the honor roll.” This past November, a group of parents filed a complaint against the Upper Dublin School District alleging that black students account for 45 percent of district suspensions though they make up just seven percent of the student body, and that blacks are systemically excluded from upper-level courses and gifted programs. A similar charge was leveled at the Lower Merion School District in a 2007 federal lawsuit claiming black students had been placed in special ed despite middle-of-the-pack test scores. Though that suit was dismissed by a district judge who wasn’t convinced racial bias could explain the numbers, enrollment of black students in Lower Merion’s honors and AP courses has since doubled, and the racial gap in special education has narrowed.

With double standards in schools ranging from cash-strapped inner-city institutions to those in posh suburban districts, Mazama found that black parents didn’t know where to turn to educate their kids. One increasingly popular option is to bypass the schools entirely. When Nicole Madison pulled her oldest daughter, Noelle, out of first grade at a Catholic school in Chestnut Hill, it was the sit-up-straight-and-stand-in-line pedagogy that gave her pause more than any sense her daughter was mistreated because she was black. But the more Madison talked to other parents who’d kept their kids in school, the more she heard “horror stories,” as she describes them: anecdotes about the disparity of resources, how black students fare far worse than whites on standardized tests, how one friend told Madison that her sixth-grader went to court for making terroristic threats because he used the word “kill” on the playground.

“I think the perception is that when you look at a 10-year-old African-American boy and a 10-year-old Caucasian boy, the African-American boy is more likely to act out on purpose, as opposed to just being a kid,” she says.

That’s not to say some black students aren’t misbehaving, or to discount environmental factors inside the home that could be at fault. But when they are disproportionately punished as far back as pre-K, by the time they reach high school they may be branded as problem kids — in turn, making them more likely to act out. The statistics from Upper Dublin and Lower Merion reflect disparities nationwide: Black public-school students are three times more likely to be suspended than whites and account for 31 percent of school-related arrests — feeding the so-called school-to-prison pipeline — despite making up just 16 percent of the K-through-12 student body. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy with residual effects.

Ameenah Muhammad-Diggins, a first-year homeschooler in Burlington County, saw how her son, the only African-American child in his private-school grade, was viewed through that prism despite being a standout student. “He brought a science project in and they were like, ‘Whoaaaaa, he did so well, oh my God.’ And I’m thinking, it’s a good science project, but why are you amazed?” she says. “I felt he was not expected to do as well as everybody else.” After she pulled her nine- and 11-year-olds out of school last summer, Muhammad-
Diggins says, she felt the need to undo all the damage wrought by that marginalization: “We spent the last month just kind of trying to rebuild their self-esteem and doing more exploratory learning.”

How to insulate black children from a potentially toxic school culture is a theme throughout Mazama’s research. For this, she coined the term “racial protectionism,” which she defined in a paper for the Journal of Black Studies:

Racial protectionists shared the view that schools, public or private, could not, given the racist nature of American society, be emotionally safe for Black children. Racism was talked about as an inevitable fact of American life and schools as a place where Black children were bound to experience dire racial oppression and hostility in the form of the suppression of African American cultural identity and imposition of Whiteness as the ideal norm. …

In her homeschooling, Mazama moves to circumvent that “imposition of whiteness.” Aside from a novel each by John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway (she has a soft spot for those stories), her children read no white authors; during the lesson on spiritual intelligence, all the examples in Mazama’s PowerPoint were African-American or Native American. “I made a point of not teaching anything from white history, white literature, white nothing,” she says.

Though the concept of racial protectionism harks back to Marcus Garvey and the Nation of Islam, don’t confuse black homeschooling with a modern-day separatist movement. Mazama’s approach is exceptional. I spoke to 10 other homeschooling parents, and most take part in multicultural homeschooling groups; none have strong feelings about Afrocentrism. What they do share is a desire to teach black history without relegating it to a single month.

“It’s going to be hard for you to sit in a traditional classroom and find resources and topics that address what’s going on with black people unless it’s February,” says Andrea Thorpe, a Burlington County mother, expressing a universal sentiment among the black parents I interviewed. Thorpe runs a Facebook group for African-American homeschooling moms that has grown from 15 to 1,600 people over the past 18 months. One function of the group is to serve as a forum for swapping notes on black-related historical sites to visit on field trips, books with strong black characters, and how to teach current events related to race. “I had no idea there were that many black families homeschooling,” Thorpe notes, “so it’s nice to know that you’re not by yourself.”

But is the attempt to remove institutional racism from a child’s experience a form of sheltering? After all, racial tensions are all over the news; prejudice and discrimination await after the kids end their homeschooling. Nicole Madison, who now lives in Plymouth Meeting, insists it’s quite the opposite: Her daughter wouldn’t have been as well prepared for facing racism in college without homeschooling. “I think because she had such a firm foundation, knew who she was already, it didn’t hurt her the same way it might’ve hurt her if she’d grown up feeling that systematic racism her entire life.”

HOMESCHOOLERS LIKE RYAN JOBSON, a freckled, African-American freshman at Swarthmore College, are helping to dispel the broader stereotype. He’s your classic overachiever: He started fixing computers when he was seven and ran a business at 12. Despite never having taken a standardized test, he placed in the 98th percentile on his ACT science exam. “When I meet somebody, I usually say, ‘Hi, I’m Ryan, the homeschool kid,’” he says, with a smile highlighting his dimples. Jobson’s introduction is one part sly strategy to make an impression and one part a polite way of saying, This is who I am, get over it. Having been homeschooled is as much a part of his identity as his decisions to enroll in a black-studies course and to double-major in engineering and computer science. He proudly wears it all on his sleeve.

Jobson grew up in wealthy suburbs and with ample resources, much like your prototypical homeschooler. Thanks to the logistical and financial challenges of teaching your own children, homeschooling parents tend to be married, higher-educated and higher-income. But for some, like Nicole Madison, the challenges of homeschooling are enormous. Following a divorce, Madison faced the daunting task of educating three—soon to be five—kids alone. She got a late-night copywriting job and functioned on four hours of sleep for a time.

In Philadelphia, though, there’s a movement to make it easier to opt out of standard education. Enter Natural Creativity, a homeschooling center in Germantown. “We need a place for working parents where children can go and be a part of a community of other families and get support for the transition out of school,” says Diane Cornman-Levy, the center’s executive director.

Two years ago, Cornman-Levy forged the idea for the center with Peter Bergson, the co-founder of Open Connections, a 40-year-old “progressive education” campus located on a 28-acre farm in Delaware County — something like a cross between a Montessori school and a commune. Educators are mere facilitators, while kids are left in the driver’s seat of the curriculum, suggesting what the group programming should be and what individual projects they’ll pursue. One mother who sent her kids there told me her kids were using power tools — safely — by the third grade.

The city spinoff opened in a temporary location — the First United Methodist Church of Germantown — in January, with plans for a permanent home soon. Costs per family are based on parents’ ability to pay, to allow for more socioeconomic diversity. All signs point to greater racial diversity, too: About half of the two dozens kids enrolled in the program so far are black. That doesn’t surprise Cornman-Levy. “When I talk to families about Natural Creativity, I connect to African-Americans faster than to any group,” she says. “They get it — I don’t have to sell the fact that school is doing these things not in the best interest of their child.”

When I ask Mazama what she’s heard about a homeschooling center opening up less than a mile from her home, I get one of her gentle, skeptical stares. We’re standing in her foyer, the sound of rain pattering outside. She knows nothing about Natural Creativity — a response suggesting that homeschooling is growing too fast for even a researcher to keep up.

A racially integrated homeschool experiment like Natural Creativity is another means to expand the growing share of black self-educators, so Mazama is all for it. She points out that Maryland’s Prince George’s County, the bastion of black upper-middle-class life in America, has a booming black homeschooling population. Mazama doesn’t think it’s a coincidence. “These are black people who see that there’s definitely a problem and they decide to do something about it, to remove themselves physically from that environment,” she says.

With racial inequality seemingly at every turn of their children’s lives, black parents view homeschooling as an opportunity to claim authority over at least one area: education. Consider it a new twist on the old African-American proverb “Each one teach one.” Ever the iconoclast, Mazama sees the potential for this movement to ripple out through society: “There was this woman I spoke to who always would say this: ‘If all those black men in prison had been homeschooled, they would not have ended up there.’”

Published as “A Class of Their Own” in the February 2016 issue of Philadelphia magazine.