Black Families Turn to Microschools and Homeschool for ‘Safety’ in Education

When Sheresa Boone Blanchard, a mother of three in North Carolina, started homeschooling her son during the pandemic, it might actually have saved her time.

Isaiah, her middle child, had finished fifth grade in June 2020. With the health crisis going on, Blanchard switched him to virtual lessons when he started sixth grade. But he has ADHD and just couldn’t focus without someone with him, she says. So Blanchard, who was working remotely as a college professor, and her mother, Loretta Boone, who was retired, were spending a lot of time every day trying to help Isaiah with his virtual school assignments.

Blanchard felt like the school wasn’t able to accommodate her son, despite his 504 plan. After he fell behind on some assignments, it felt like he’d dug a hole from which he couldn’t get out: While the school would let him turn in the assignments, he would only get partial credit for them, and all the while new assignments kept coming. The school was unwilling to really compromise to help him catch up, Blanchard says. “It was an almost overly punitive environment,” she reflects.

Since they were spending so much time with him anyway, the family figured that homeschool would give them control over curriculum and the style of teaching. So the family decided to withdraw him. The homeschool curriculum — BookShark, a four-day-per-week literature-focused package — arrived near Isaiah’s birthday. “I remember thinking, ‘Wow, like, that’s amazing that everything’s aligning. Like, this is the way we’re supposed to do things,’” she recalls.

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Sheresa Boone Blanchard and her family. Photo courtesy of Blanchard.

At the time, Blanchard was a tenured professor. She says she “triaged” her schedule. That meant teaching courses and taking meetings online while devoting several hours in the mornings to homeschooling her son.

While it was a lot of energy and time to put into practice, it wasn’t more than she was devoting to “trying to make the system work.” The curriculum also let Blanchard and her mom tailor the lessons to Isaiah, focusing on the subjects where he needed extra help and zipping through the ones where he didn’t. “And it ended up being a really positive experience overall, for him and for our family,” says Blanchard, who now works as an associate professor at East Carolina University.

Blanchard isn’t alone. During the pandemic, the number of students struggling climbed, increasing the interest in alternatives like microschooling. Now, homeschools and microschools — two categories that overlap — are booming. About 5 to 6 percent of all K-12 students are homeschooled, according to Johns Hopkins University’s Homeschool Hub, a collection of homeschooling research and resources. Blanchard’s state, North Carolina, has the second highest percentage of homeschooled students in the country: at about 9 percent, according to the Homeschool Hub.

The lack of oversight for these alternatives means that curricula and rigor vary widely, and that students don’t experience some of the protections of public school. But recent attention and federal dollars have also spurred attempts to increase regulations. Still, there’s a tendency for people to remove some of the nuance when talking about the uptick in homeschooling and microschools, Angela Watson, an assistant research professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Education, told EdSurge in May. But in reality, there’s a sweep of reasons parents are attracted to these types of schools. Even within a state, she added, the level of interest in non-public schools can vary, perhaps due to the available options.

For some Black families, she said, interest shot up due to the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement. Some families, particularly ones whose children need learning accommodations, also feel like those students are being pushed out, she said.

For some of these families, the need for these types of alternative schools seems urgent.

Dismantling the ‘School-to-Prison Pipeline’

Black families are turning to microschools for “safety,” says Janelle Wood, founder of Black Mothers Forum, a network of nine microschools in Arizona, a state considered friendly to the “school choice” movement.

These families are perhaps drawn to alternative schooling for different reasons than conservative, white families, she adds.

In 2016, Wood and other Black mothers were looking for a place to voice their rage and sadness over police killings, including of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray. So she called a meeting to discuss how to safeguard their children from systemic racism. “I’m a reverend,” Wood says, adding, she felt a religious calling to “be a voice for those without a voice.” Her platform, she elaborates, put her in a position to articulate the needs of her community.

But before long, the group had focused its attention on the “school-to-prison pipeline.” They had identified education as the beginning of a chain of events that fed into poor life outcomes. In education, Black students are over-disciplined, “criminalizing” normal behavior from an early age, Wood says. Around the same time, Wood also noticed that classrooms seem crowded with too many students, so that teachers can’t give adequate attention to those who are struggling, especially across racial divides, which she believes reinforces the problem.

The result? These families don’t feel supported by schools, Wood says.

Black Mothers Forum opened a microschool four years ago. Wood argues that keeping schools small and rooted in the community enables deeper relationships between the teachers and students. It means that when students make a mistake or need correction because they are acting out, Wood says, they know it’s coming from a place of support. “And so the milestones provide a space for them to grow, a space for them to be seen as human, as validated,” she says.

These days, Black Mothers Forum microschools are educating about 60 students spread over nine schools, ranging from five to 10 students each. The less established of those schools have two adults overseeing the classes. More established ones are overseen by one adult, often a former teacher or a parent with an advanced degree related to education, and students and parents play an active role in setting school culture, according to Wood. Almost all of the students and teachers are Black.

In part, Wood views the schools as addressing the continued fallout of the pandemic. Microschools allow students to have social lives and be in a less intimidating learning environment than large schools in the hopes that they will recover from the negative effects of school closures. “Some children need a smaller environment, and microschools seem to be doing the job for a lot of these kids,” Wood says.

Initially, a lot of parents were interested in microschools as a way to build up their students’ capacity to eventually go back to public school, she says. But increasingly, she claims, there’s interest in staying in microschools. Recently, the network expanded to include high school options.

A Potential Lifeline

For Blanchard, the homeschool experiment was useful. Her son’s academic performance improved.

Still, when Blanchard’s job became less flexible — in addition to her worries about what limited interactions with other students might mean for Isaiah’s social development — it felt like time to change again. Local homeschool groups weren’t very diverse, she says. They tried a private school, but found that Isaiah struggled there. He felt alienated, she says, because the school was being singled out for punishment. The school also seemed full of rich kids. So now, Isaiah is back in public school for ninth grade.

Although they never quite found the perfect situation for Isaiah, Blanchard says, the homeschool trial served as a “reset year.” She and most of the other families she knows who are homeschooling are reacting to an ecosystem that they don’t feel is nurturing or supporting their kids, she says. His home proved a more affirming environment, and that let his family build Isaiah up to prepare him to re-enter public school.

Other advocates of education alternatives believe that microschools are a chance to assist public schools, either by trying out new methods for learning — which could then be reimported back into public schools if they work — or, in some cases, by providing community assistance.

For Wood, of the Black Mothers Forum, microschools could represent a way to relieve pressure from public schools. Public schools should bring microschools onto their campuses, Wood argues. That way, they don’t lose students and can bring in assistance for overworked teachers, she says. It’s a way of bringing the community further into schools, Wood adds.

“Let someone who actually understands [the students who are struggling] and looks like them be the ones that work with them, and watch the difference in these children. Now you don’t lose children, you’re now helping children,” Wood says.

She says she’s been looking for a public school to partner with her own organization. But so far she hasn’t found one.

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