By Sam P. K. Collins
The pandemic inspired, or in many cases compelled, families in the D.C. metropolitan area and beyond to cut ties with the traditional school system.
As a result of the dramatic departure, veteran home-school parents like DeLise Bernard became guides into a world that has been misunderstood, and to a degree shunned, for many years.
As public and public charter schools gear up for the return to in-person learning in the fall, Bernard said she continues to come across parents who, out of concern about the current public health landscape, want to either start or continue the home-schooling journey.
For this growing group of families, it has become a matter of protecting their young ones.
“People are being vigilant about the Delta variant and the CDC regulations. They’re already asking what activities we are doing, or if anyone has heard of any programs opening up,” Bernard said.
Bernard, a mother of three and a veteran home-school parent for more than a decade, launched “Surviving Homeschool” not long after the public and public charter schools transitioned to virtual learning amid the pandemic.
“Surviving Homeschool” is now an online community of more than 8,500 families across the U.S. sharing educational resources, virtual courses and coaching techniques.
It serves as a reliable resource about home-schooling intricacies, including setting a schedule, choosing curricula and seeking out academically enriching activities.
As inquiries among families increased throughout much of the summer, Bernard dedicated much of her time to flooding the “Surviving Homeschool” site with more resources. She also collaborated with the Sankofa Homeschool Community and Collective, and other local cooperatives, to find more families to serve.
“We’re going to look for a high number of home-schoolers because of the inconsistency we’re getting from the Centers for Disease Control and American Academy of Pediatrics on masking,” Bernard told The Informer. “All the co-ops are seeing people, asking questions and starting to participate.”
Home schooling jumped among Black families in the U.S. from 3.3 percent in the first week of April 2020 to 16.6. percent by mid-October, according to Census data.
Families made the transition for various reasons, including health concerns, their children’s special needs and the desire for cultural competency.
At this juncture in the home-school movement, Bernard and other D.C.-based home-school parents have set their sights on the Office of the State Superintendent of Education [OSSE]. They’re hoping the agency will update policies to meet the needs of a populace that has reached nearly 800 over the last 18 months.
Under OSSE regulations, parents deciding to home-school must submit a form to the agency affirming their intentions at least 16 days before making that transition. Each year, home-school parents are then subjected to a portfolio review. They must show OSSE that their child is learning and receiving grades for writing, mathematics and the other core subjects.
While she has no objections to the homeschool portfolio review process, Bernard expressed concern that home-schoolers don’t have access to tax-payer-funded special education services.
Additionally, home-school students approaching high school age find difficulty participating in athletics and dual enrollment college programs available to their public and public charter school counterparts.
On July 14, Bernard and other members of D.C.’s home-school community spoke before the D.C. State Board of Education [SBOE] about this dilemma.
The meeting counted as the first time in nearly 15 years that SBOE revisited home schooling in the District. Parents who spoke that evening espoused the need for other institutions to recognize and support them, even mentioning other cities where parents received direct financial support for their endeavors.
Ward 8 SBOE Representative Dr. Carlene Reid told The Informer that the meeting hinted at the need for home-schooling support. She said parents spoke about access to special education resources, dual enrollment and supplemental learning opportunities where home-schoolers could interact with their public and public charter school peers through community partnerships.
“The home-schooling numbers show that parents see that our education system doesn’t meet a certain need and they have the desire to cater education how they see fit in their households,” Reid said.
Home-School Parents Pull Together
For 20 years, Monica Utsey has taken the responsibility of teaching her children into her own hands. Her ultimate goal involved providing an education that affirmed her children’s African identity.
Along the way, Utsey connected with like-minded mothers with whom she formed the Southern D.C. chapter of Mocha Moms and eventually the Sankofa Homeschool Community and Collective.
Years before COVID-19 brought life to a standstill, the Sankofa Homeschool Collective, an African-centered home-school community for families of the African diaspora, operated out of Adinkra Arts Studio in Mt. Rainier, Md.
In the fall of 2019, the collective moved its activities to the Ft. Chaplin Community Center in Northeast.
Throughout the pandemic, Utsey also collaborated with parents across the Atlantic to launch a home-school network for Black families repatriating to Ghana.
Utsey’s sons joined legions of Black children that studied core subjects along with a tailor-made curriculum that included Pan-African history, indigenous African languages and drumming. Enrichment activities exposed them to historically and culturally significant parts of the D.C. metropolitan area.
Utsey’s older son, Zion, even took classes at the University of the District of Columbia [UDC] under a dual-enrollment program through which he received a dozen college credits. However, that experience culminated in a situation that Utsey recounted to the State Board earlier this month when speaking about inequities in the treatment of home-schoolers.
In 2019, upon receiving a full scholarship to UDC, Zion Utsey and another home-school student found out that their home-school education wouldn’t suffice in the eyes of UDC’s admissions department. They instead would need to produce a GED.
In response, Zion, who’s now a full-fledged lyricist and producer, enrolled at Prince George’s Community College.
Utsey recounted similar challenges years ago, attempting to enroll her younger son Ayinde in a taxpayer-funded reading program at a local school. She said she relied on her network of home-school parents for alternatives when that didn’t pan out.
This upcoming school year, Ayinde, who took an IT certification course with Urban Ed, will continue to explore writing and mathematics through the prism of entrepreneurship as he expands his African apparel business.
“I’m sure that some people believe that children are being deprived or parents are holding them hostage,” Utsey said. “We’re individual parents. What we have done is band together through Sankofa to share resources, teach and help one another. That’s how we help each other and help parents who are interested in home schooling.”
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