- The Washington Times - Monday, November 25, 2002

RICHMOND (AP) Gilbert and Gloria Wilkerson have home-schooled their children for 13 years.
But when they attended home-schooling conferences in the past, they noticed something unusual.
"There would be one other black family in a group of about 4,000 people," Gilbert Wilkerson said. "My kids would say, 'Where are the black home-schooled kids?'"
Like the Wilkersons, more black families are taking on the responsibility of teaching their children at home. Home-schooling, once thought of as a preserve of white conservatives, is undergoing an image change.
Three years ago, black families accounted for 1 percent of the 850,000 American families who home-schooled their children, according to a study by the National Center for Education Statistics. That is about 8,500 black families.
But that number has since skyrocketed to 80,000 black families, or about 5 percent of the 1.6 million children that are home-schooled now, according to Brian Ray, president of the National Home Education Research Institute.
The black families' reasons for switching to home schooling include religious beliefs, lack of diverse curricula in public schools, school safety and inability to find teachers who can address the needs of students from different backgrounds.
The Wilkersons say they are dispelling the belief that blacks are obligated to send their children to public schools.
"Fifty years ago, state-run schools were supposed to be our savior. Now our kids are on the bottom rung," Gilbert Wilkerson said. "Academically, blacks need to get a grip as parents and realize we can't sit back and expect someone to give our child an education."
But opponents say blacks are giving up on what they fought for during the civil rights movement equality in public education. Instead of opting for home schooling, black parents should work to improve public education, said Robert Pratt, author of "The Color of Their Skin, Education and Race In Richmond, Virginia, 1954-89."
"It's our responsibility to see what changes need to be made to get our needs met," said Mr. Pratt, an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia. "I don't see pulling your child out of the school system as much of a solution."
He said he worries that home schooling contributes to societal racism and leaves black home-schoolers less prepared to deal with it.
"Children must understand at an early age that there are other people who don't look like them," Mr. Pratt said. "Oftentimes, racially exclusive environments breed hate."
Home-school teacher Sonya Wright said her students know what racism is.
"Teaching them at home, I'm going to make sure they learn that, 'Yes, you can do whatever you want to do,' and 'Yes, there will be battles because you are black, but you will be able to face them with a good education.'"
Mrs. Wright and her two sisters opted to teach their 10 children at home after pulling them out of public school.
She tested her children at a private school first and discovered they were two years behind the students there.
"They didn't know who Chopin or Beethoven were," Mrs. Wright said. "They didn't even know what the NAACP was."
Mrs. Wright, 30, left her job as a restaurant manager to teach full-time with her sister, 27-year-old Sharon Kemp.
Another sister, Sherida Kemp, 32, comes in evenings after work to help with homework and plan field trips.
Each child has an individually tailored curriculum, but all take music, art and Spanish classes.
The three sisters, none of whom has a college degree, use curricula approved by Henrico schools. The children take standardized tests at the end of the year, and the family must submit a packet of materials and test scores to the county to verify that the students are making progress.
The sisters' mother, Mamie Kemp, paid $10,000 for the students' curricula and supplies.
However, home schooling doesn't have to be expensive, said Margaret Shaw, whose husband founded the Virginia Home Education Association.
With a little imagination and pooled resources, parents can teach for about $550 a year, she said.
"We want to help parents in poorer communities see this is something they can do," Mrs. Shaw said. "Everyone should have this option regardless of their color."
After a month of home schooling, Mrs. Wright sees a difference in her children, especially nephew Brandon.
At Fairfield, he was failing math and dealing with bullies, but now he's doing well in his studies and coming out of his shell.
"My teacher [at the public school] didn't understand my questions," he said.


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