For years, Black parents frustrated by traditional schools have been pulling their children out of classrooms to educate them at home — and that decision is becoming more common.
The rate of Black families dropping traditional learning for home-schooling in 2020 was five times that of any other racial group in the country, a U.S. Census Bureau survey found.
St. Louis Public Radio's new podcast Doin' It Our Way explores why Black families in the St. Louis region are choosing to home-school, how they are managing to do it and what the kids think about it.
'My kids were falling apart'
Beverly Hopgood couldn’t believe what she was seeing and hearing from her 6-year-old daughter Addisyn’s computer.
“Stop doing that,” she recalled hearing her daughter’s teacher tell students. “Put on a shirt! Get out of bed! Stop this!”
The virtual classroom was in chaos. Her teacher struggled daily to hold the attention of a class full of rambunctious kids from behind a computer screen. Like many parents in 2020, Hopgood watched what was happening in her kids’ classrooms in real time.
“It was just ridiculous,” Hopgood said.
It didn’t help that Addisyn was bored and tired of repetitive learning. The experience of her son Andre Jr., then 9, wasn’t any better. His teacher had a habit of ignoring him, Hopgood said. Once, she witnessed the teacher ignore her son for 15 minutes while he raised his hand high in the air.
“He was like: ‘She’s not paying attention to me. My time is almost up,’” Hopgood recalled. “He was trying to understand the actual question, so he could answer it. I guess that it wasn’t explained to him well enough.” After Hopgood got off a work meeting, she went into the view of Andre's screen. “Then all of a sudden she was like, ‘Andre, you had a question?’ Sweetie, if you saw my son raising his hand a while ago, then you should have answered him a while ago. Don’t ignore my child. That just — it just really frustrated me.”
Andre would get so frustrated in class that he’d cry. Hopgood had had enough.
“I could just see my kids were just falling apart,” Hopgood said. “I know as a mom, we all have jobs outside of our homes. But as a mom, my first job is to my babies. My first job is to make sure that they're OK and they are getting everything that they need. I knew in my heart that they just weren't.”
She thought about enrolling her kids in a new school but worried they would experience the same thing elsewhere. As she started looking into other options, someone she knew suggested home-schooling.
She started reading everything she could about it and talked to other parents who home-school their kids. She liked the freedom she would have in Missouri to decide what and how they learned.
Her husband, Andre Sr., was reluctant. They’d just welcomed another baby, and as a firefighter he would often be gone for 24-hour work shifts. But after several conversations about what their kids were experiencing in school, they decided to start their home-schooling journey in 2021. They have no plans to turn back.
'I didn’t want that for them'
Miquilaue and James Young’s seven kids have never set foot in a traditional classroom.
This is how Miquilaue had long envisioned raising her family.
“I always knew even when I was younger that … I was going to home birth, and that I was going to home-school,” Young said.
She’s been home-schooling their children for more than a decade. Her kids are getting the education she wished she’d had. They’ve learned how to code; they’ve taken trips to Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma; and her daughter Sasha got a chance to fly in a small airplane in the Young Eagles Aviation Program.
“There's experiences that I didn't have that I wanted them to have,” Young said. “More exposure to their culture, and more exposure to learning in a natural way that inspired them to continue learning rather than just regurgitating what they found in a book.”
The Newport Beach, California, native went to a largely white school. She was one of a handful of Black kids in her class. There was a lack of Black representation in her schoolwork. When Black history and culture were included in lessons, they felt more like footnotes in a curriculum that focused on Eurocentric and white American narratives, she said.
She described a feeling of otherness common among Black people in predominantly white spaces. “Reading some books was really hard, being the only African American in the classroom, and everybody is looking at you, every time the N-word is spoken in the literature,” she said.
What she felt in school followed her into the workforce.
That feeling came to a head while she was working as a social worker for the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services. The majority of her cases were Black kids, but she struggled to relate to their experiences. The feeling shook her.
“So, I had decided to go back to school to get a degree in African American Studies and learn more about my history, my culture [and] my ancestors,” Young said. “It was pretty maddening to learn that the things that I was taught in high school were inaccurate. It's like, can somebody go back and fix those books? Like, why do I have to go and get an advanced degree to learn that what I learned in high school was wrong?”
That ultimately led her down the path to home-schooling. Her husband, a teacher in the Ferguson-Florissant School District, supported her vision. And their seven kids — Sasha, Neorah, Enosh, Emuna, Simeon, Naomi and Elsie — will tell you they wouldn't have it any other way. When asked whether they like home-schooling, the kids, crowded around the Youngs’ kitchen table, responded in chorus: “I love it. I love it. I love it."
'Between two worlds'
Shalon Gates always knew her son Isaac was different.
When he was 2 years old, he’d say, “Mom, I know what number this is,” Gates recalled. And soon he was reading. “Then he started to show evidence of being able to do simple math equations and wanting to write in cursive letters and learning how to read at the age of 3.”
She and her husband, Halbert, wanted to nurture that gift and decided to home-school their four kids. Things were great for about six years until money got tight, and Shalon, then a stay-at-home mom, had to go back to work. The couple enrolled their three oldest kids in a private Christian school where Shalon started working as an assistant kindergarten teacher, and their youngest started day care.
But traditional school just wasn’t working out for some of the kids, Gates said. Their youngest son, Joseph, was bullied, and Isaac was bored. He was already a couple of grades ahead thanks to home-schooling. Shalon and Halbert thought this was the perfect opportunity to push for Isaac to be placed in a higher math level. But school administrators disagreed.
“It was just like, ‘Well, yeah, you know, you guys say that he can do all these wonderful things with math, but we kind of think he should just stay at this level,’” Gates recalls being told. Not allowing Isaac to work ahead shook his confidence. He would always finish his work before most of his classmates and worried that he’d lose friends if he’d continue to excel, Gates said.
Not long after, all four Gates kids and Shalon transitioned back to home-schooling. It was a decision that not all of the kids welcomed. Their oldest daughter, 8-year-old Aamori, took it pretty hard.
“When our mom took us out of school, I was very sad,” Aamori said. “All of my friends were at that school, and I was never going to see them again. And after she pulled us out of school, then I just stopped making friends.”
This reality of home-schooling weighs heavily on Shalon Gates. She said it’s hard trying to meet and satisfy the needs of four different kids.
“As a mom, I really wrestle, because I want my children to be happy and content with their learning experience,” she said. “I don’t want them to feel like home-school is this sentence that they have to serve, because Mom and Dad have decided this is what we’re going to do. At the same time, I know the grass looks greener on the other side.”
In Episode 3, Shalon and the Gates kids get curious to explore that emerald-looking other side. And they’re surprised by what they find.
Reported, written and produced by: Marissanne Lewis-Thompson
Audio editing by: Shahla Farzan, Jonathan Ahl and Shula Neuman
Digital editing by: Brian Heffernan
Photography: Brian Munoz
Engagement: Lara Hamdan
Copy editing: Bob Cronin
Digital layout and distribution: Alex Rice and Brendan Williams
Logo design: Lia Basden
Sound design: Marissanne Lewis-Thompson and Greg Munteanu
Sound mixing: Marissanne Lewis-Thompson
Music: Blue Dot Sessions