When Shawn Spence first moved to Baltimore, she enrolled her eldest children in what she believed was one of the best public schools in the city.
But before long, her daughter started bringing books from home to read while the teacher worked with less advanced pupils in the crowded fifth-grade classroom. Spence's first-grader sat with his head on his desk while the harried teacher dealt with behavioral problems.
Spence said budget cuts brought an end to foreign-language instruction and meant one teacher had to juggle both physical education and art classes at the school, which she declined to identify.
The breaking point came when Spence brought her loquacious 3-year-old to the public library for a story hour with other preschoolers. When his enthusiastic questions and comments during the story were shushed, Spence had an unsettling vision. She feared that when her son hit school age, he could be tagged as having an attention disorder and unfairly burdened with the sort of negative profile that she believes the schools disproportionately attach to black boys.
"That was the straw that broke the camel's back," said Spence, 34, a freelance writer and former editor and teacher. "He's going to be interested and want to learn things, and is going to be told to sit down and to be quiet. I'm not going to have him tracked and medicated."
Which is how Spence and three of her five children ended up sitting at their dining room table on a recent morning with spelling, math, grammar, language-arts and phonics books strewn haphazardly before them, along with flashcards, crayons, markers, stuffed animals, children's fiction, old mail and an apple.
In 2004, Spence and her husband joined the growing ranks of blacks opting to teach their children at home. Black parents - some of whom consider themselves to be part of a movement - share the common concerns of most families that home-school their children: They're dissatisfied with expensive private schools or the failure and hopelessness they see in public schools, or they want to emphasize religious education.
But they mention other factors, too, including the desire to broaden lessons by incorporating multicultural or Afrocentric perspectives. Some worry that public schools particularly disserve black children. Others say that, as students, they were steered away from four-year colleges or otherwise treated differently from their white peers, and they want to protect their children from those inequities.
Black home-schooling families say they are seeing their numbers increase noticeably in Baltimore, Washington and surrounding suburbs, areas with large black populations and, in some cases, notoriously underperforming schools.
"The face of home schooling has really changed over the years. It's not just Christian fundamentalists and Hollywood kids. Anyone can do it," said Misty Muhammad, a mother of three from Baltimore County who recently started a home-schooling support group with five other black families. "People realize they have options and they can do a better job."
Spreading the word
Researchers say 1.1 million to 2.4 million children are taught at home nationwide. While data on home-schooled students are spotty, experts say that blacks are one of the fastest-growing sectors of that population. Brian Ray, the president of the National Home Education Research Institute, estimated that black children make up about 6 percent of that pool based on data from his own organization, as well as the U.S. Census Bureau and the National Center for Education Statistics.
"Up until a few years ago, a dark-skinned face in the audience was almost unheard of" at a home-schooling conference, Ray said. "Now there's an obvious, obvious, obvious change. In some local or regional conferences, the majority of the audience is African-American or Hispanic."
Spence said that at least once a month she is approached by black strangers when she's out with her children in the middle of the day. "First they say, 'Oh my gosh, you're home-schooling,'" Spence said, "and the next minute they're asking for my number."
Word has trickled out slowly in the black community, said Maisha Khalfani, who turned to home schooling after reading Jawanza Kunjufu's Countering the Conspiracy to Destroy Black Boys while pregnant with her son. The stereotype that only whites home-school persists, she said, and some black parents face pressure not to desert community schools.
"Historically, because of the struggles black people had in this country - Brown v. Board of Education, civil rights - there is this idea that going to public school is very much a privilege that we didn't have before," said Khalfani, whose children recently returned to public schools after the family moved to Baltimore County. "It's considered a no-no to pull your kids out."
Black parents tempted to home-school also frequently hear pleas not to leave because they're exactly the kind of proactive parents schools need.
But that hasn't stemmed the tide.
"I don't have one ounce of guilt. Not one," said Jennifer James, founder of the National African-American Homeschoolers Alliance in North Carolina. In public school, "the black students do worse than any other students in the state. ... I could stay around and help with something largely irreparable or go a different route."
In the Baltimore-D.C. region, the growing number of black home-schooling networks - from groups such as Muhammad's to much larger organizations - signals a flowering of interest.
Spence is the vice president of Umoja, a highly organized, black Christian home-schooling group that meets twice a month in Woodlawn, largely for academic clubs, cooperative classes and field trips. Recently, Umoja children, who number about 80, have studied subject including playwriting, music history and the stock market. They always have a devotion time for singing or praying.
Toni Hatton meets twice a week in Baltimore County with other black mothers for group classes with their 5-year-olds. Another group, Sankofa Homeschool Community, is a cooperative for minorities in the Washington area. Numerous communities exist online, including Baltimore-Washington African American Homeschoolers, a group Khalfani founded about three years ago that has 94 members.
One explanation for the surge in home schooling in the region has to do with the large number of highly educated, middle-class black families who can afford for one parent to stay at home or work part time, said Monica Wells Kisura, a doctoral candidate at American University's School of International Service, who is doing research on black home-schoolers.
"Sure, there's diversity among home-schoolers in terms of socioeconomic background," Wells Kisura said. "But one of the reasons I believe the numbers are so significant in Prince George's County, Baltimore County, Baltimore and D.C. has to do with affluence."
Focus on benefits
In general, however, black parents tend to focus on pedagogy and philosophy when they talk about their drive to home-school.
"It's a perfect fit for us," said Muhammad, 30, who has three children, ages 4, 6 and 8. Her husband is a truck driver, and she used to work in mental health services for Philadelphia public schools.
Because of a lack of resources, crowded classes and violence, "a lot of times, it's not education going on in the school system," she said. "I really don't see them going to public school and couldn't afford private school.
"We're Muslim, and that's a big a part of it. I wanted to be able to convey our beliefs to our children without being clouded with other things," she added.
Also, public schools tend to leave black people out of history lessons, she said, echoing other parents' concerns that, all too often, Africa is deemed irrelevant or that black history is reduced to a civil rights lesson or squeezed into a specialty month.
"There's nothing to affirm the black child," Muhammad said. "I wanted them to grow up with healthy self-esteem."
Other parents mention additional benefits - ones that weren't in the "brochure." They talk about growing closer as a family through home schooling. And they are glad they are molding independent students and helping their children avoid the potentially damaging effects of peer pressure.
"Education in a box isn't creating a lifelong learner," Spence said.
Typical school day
Spence, who is considered extremely energetic even among her busy home-schooling friends, was overseeing a typical school day in the family's rambling household in Northwest Baltimore. Lester Spence, a political science professor at the Johns Hopkins University whom the family views as the school principal, was upstairs with the 1-year-old, and Niara, 3, watching a video.
After a prayer, during which the family stood and held hands, Imani, 11, worked on spelling, mystery writing and grammar - a subject near and dear to her mother that Imani grudgingly endures. Kamari, 7, completed his subtraction problems, then read a poem aloud, worked on elocution and was introduced to the word "monotonous." Kiserian, 5, learned short vowel sounds, haltingly sounding out "rug" and "bus." Occasionally Niara wandered through in her pink slippers.
There was silliness, high-fiving, occasional griping, some sibling ribbing and plenty of maternal squeezing and encouragement.
"I believe that the home is the first place for education. You potty train. You teach them to walk. You can teach anything. That's my philosophy," Spence said. "Especially if you yourself believe in it."