Homeschooling... A More Diverse Choice

Feb 18, 2019

As we learned yesterday, homeschooling in our part of Virginia is growing quickly for various reasons. In this follow-up report, WMRA’s Andrew Jenner reports on one homeschooling co-op in Charlottesville founded to create a positive learning environment for children of color.

[Sound of lunchtime at Community Roots Co-op]

Call it the universal law of school lunch: if you sit a group of kids down with their packed lunches, you get a little bit of eating and a lot of happy chatter. These particular happy chatterers are students at the Community Roots Co-op, just outside Charlottesville.

Now in its fourth year, Community Roots was founded by a group of parents who saw a need in Charlottesville for a school that emphasizes and affirms diversity in its student body, staff and curriculum. With about 20 students ages 4 to 12 enrolled, it operates as a homeschool co-op. Two hired educators do much of the teaching, with other responsibilities divided among parents. Rachel Zaslow, one of Community Roots’ founding moms, says the group tries to maintain a ratio of 80 percent children of color to 20 percent white children.

RACHEL ZASLOW: It’s an intentional balance so that children of color are represented as the majority and see themselves reflected in their peers and their teachers, in the things that they’re learning.

When Zaslow and her family moved to Charlottesville from Brooklyn five years ago, they were struck by the city’s stark racial and class divides. And when she began looking at school options for her daughter, who is black, Zaslow was concerned by what she encountered.

ZASLOW: Everywhere around us were only images of white children, only books with white children, and when I asked about how diversity and my own daughter might be represented, I was told about a slavery unit that they did. And so I was very concerned that my daughter’s culture would only be represented through the lens of slavery or the Civil Rights Movement.

And so, Zaslow decided to homeschool through the co-op she helped found.        

ZASLOW: On some level I believe in resiliency and I believe that we can grow through things that are hard, but specifically for my daughter who’s black, there’s some racially based trauma that I think at this early point in her life, if she can have tools to know how to deal with those things when they come at her, and a really strong grounding in who she is and in her self-esteem, she’ll be better equipped to deal with the real trauma that will come at her as she gets older.

According to a recent report by PBS Newshour, the number of African-American children being homeschooled in the country has more than doubled over the last 15 years. Anecdotally, that same trend is occurring here in Virginia as well.

YVONNE BUNN: We’re seeing more of that than we have ever seen before.

Yvonne Bunn is the director of homeschool support and government affairs for the Home Educators Association of Virginia. She notes that growing diversity within homeschooling isn’t limited to African-Americans, as Muslim and Latino families are also contacting her group in increasing numbers. Still, beneath their superficial differences, Bunn says these families often have much in common.

BUNN: They want to pass on their culture and their philosophy of life and their religious beliefs. They are looking for connections with others in either support groups or co-ops that they could connect with, and also just to be able to share friendships and social activities.

For this series, I spoke to three mothers in the area who homeschool. In terms of what motivated that choice, they were quite different. But once again, there’s a common thread: they love it. Jennifer Hall is a religious homeschooler who wants her children’s education to reflect the family’s Christian values.

JENNIFER HALL: One of the most rewarding aspects for me is just learning alongside my children and taking interest in the things that they’re involved in in their educational process –everything from just enjoying watching my kindergartener learn how to put sounds together and read her first words, and the opposite end of the spectrum, working through Algebra II problems with my 11th-grader.

Gleamer Sullivan is an unschooler, who wants her kids’ interests to drive their learning, rather than someone else’s rigid curriculum.

GLEAMER SULLIVAN: Unschooling is just so wonderful, to have your children enjoy life and have them pursue what they’re really passionate about.

And back in Charlottesville, Zaslow is thrilled to see her daughter thriving at the co-op.

ZASLOW: If I could describe to you the level of joy and self-esteem that these girls have in our classroom, it’s sort of astounding. Before starting at Community Roots Co-op, my daughter was constantly asking me to straighten her hair because that’s what she saw around her. And now she loves and embraces her curly hair and says it on a daily basis. And it’s because she sees it in her teacher. It’s because she sees it in her peers. Hair seems small, but it’s big, and it’s a signifier for a lot of young girls of beauty and acceptance and who they are in the world.