Angelique Davis swore off public and private schools for her kids long ago.
Separate and unequal, the Seattle University political science professor says. The systems undervalued the cultural and personal worth of her son CJ and daughter Georgia. She would make sure they took pride in their African American heritage.
Yasmin Ravard-Andresen wanted her children’s education to be immersed in nature.
Their school would have no walls. The classroom for her son Kavinder and daughter Anjali would occasionally be Seward Park, with its Garry oak and Douglas fir trees. Field trips would be protests for black lives.
Different experiences, different disappointments and different ideas about what might work best. But these families have joined other black Seattle families in opting out of traditional education in favor of a customized home-school environment that emphasizes blackness.
“It just didn’t make sense to continue to subject my kids to a public school system that devalued them,” said Davis. “The private school options aren’t that attractive. They also utilize a Eurocentric curriculum and add to the exorbitant cost of living in Seattle.”
And she says local charter schools, such as nearby Rainier Valley Leadership Academy, are still unproven.
The do-it-yourself approach to education increasingly practiced by families like Davis’ coincides with a departure of black families and continued racial disparities in Seattle Public Schools, recently highlighted by its districtwide report card.
Equity measures in the report revealed black fifth, seventh and eighth graders lag behind their white, Hispanic and Asian counterparts in demonstrating grade proficiency in math, science and language arts.
Black students also are more than six times more likely to be expelled, and have high school graduation rates 15 percentage points lower than white students.
For Davis, the Seattle statistics were further evidence her 6- and 9-year olds’ education should be family-led, so three years ago she and her husband Cedric turned the basement of their Rainier Beach home into a personalized learning center.
There, CJ and Georgia, joined by 9-year-old Karissa Hightower, cover the core curriculum, but also learn Spanish, entrepreneurship (Georgia wants to mimic freshly minted billionaire Kylie Jenner’s cosmetics empire), and African-based cooperative economics. Textbooks include “An Indigenous People’s History of the United States.”
“I’m really able to meet kids’ needs in the moment,” said Evelyn Cook, the Spanish teacher, who has her students act out translations such as “we run.”
Having been a student in public and private schools, Karissa prefers the intimate environment and teachers from the black community.
“It was just strange how they favored the white kids. A lot of the kids and teachers would say hurtful things to me,” she says of her experiences before starting home school last year. Kids hurled racial slurs at her, she said, and black classmates got detention and were kicked out of class more than white students.
Here, she said, she enjoys lessons like one Cook’s husband Dion led on what “an entrepreneur looks like.”
“When you think of an entrepreneur, people usually draw a white male. When I ask them to think of an entrepreneur they draw someone who looks like them so they can envision themselves in that role,” said Dion Cook.
His business classes are steeped in the concept of Umoja, or unity. It’s one of the seven principles of Kwanzaa, the holiday honoring African American heritage, written on a chalkboard wall in the basement. It prioritizes a community’s uplift over an individual’s.
With only three students, the Cooks say they compress more learning into less time than a typical class day. More students means more needs, more bathroom breaks and more distractions.
The home-school setup allows the three students to learn at a pace suited to them. CJ, a fourth grader, takes middle school math, while Georgia, a kindergartner, is already on second grade math.
Jerrell Davis teaches the trio social studies, math and black revolutionary history.
“Here we’re pulling out what’s already inside of them and adding some extra pieces,” he said.
Seeking an eclectic, loving education
For Yasmin Ravard-Andresen, those extra pieces included an immersion in nature and activism for her two children she felt a public school could never provide.
“We wanted our kids to have a lot of outdoor time, and a lot of music, and really wanted an eclectic mixture of learning,” she said, well aware of stereotypes of black people being uninterested in nature.
They also occasionally attend racial and economic justice rallies. For Yasmin and her partner Dave, it was essential their kids be exposed to activism as an empathy-building tool.
For some, the home-school effort and its attendant time and financial sacrifices have less to do with academic freedom and more with their view of systemic inequity.
“I was not a fan of a homogeneous group of black boys being the primary kids in special ed,” says Foxy Davison, a former SPS teacher who has home-schooled her three children the past seven years.
Davison’s assertion aligns with data from the SPS report card that showed 23.1 percent of black students are in special education. The figure is 13.1 percent for white students. Black students make up 14.9 percent of overall enrollment.
Nationally, black children are 40 percent more likely to be identified with special needs than white students.
Locally, such issues have coincided with a decrease in black enrollment: Between 2013 and 2018, the district had 569 fewer black students. Today black students make up 14.1 percent of the district’s enrollment, a decrease of nearly 2 percent during that time period.
Acknowledging the data and criticism, SPS says that with a new superintendent, Denise Juneau, comes a new approach to combating racial disparities.
“What is radically different from the past is that our leadership has acknowledged that the discrepancies experienced by our African American students is an adult issue. There is nothing wrong with our students,” said Brent Jones, Chief Officer of Equity, Partnerships and Engagement for the district.
While the city’s shrinking black population contributes to that decrease, some home-school families blame a one-size-fits-all approach that does not take a child’s background into consideration. They see it as a manifestation of how black children are devalued by a “white-dominated society.”
“We wanted to educate our children in a way that was loving, intentional and nontraumatizing,” said Mayet Way-Bokaana.
Since 2006 she’s partnered with her friend Marjon Heru, after both removed their kids from public school, to form Black Starline, an educational collective for black home-schoolers in the Greater Seattle area.
At its height, the collective enrolled more than 13 families attracted to the creativity and freedom of developing an African-centric curriculum.
Black teachers teaching black students as Seattle’s schools struggle with diversity hires is essential, according to Way-Bokaana and Heru.
A recent study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University showed that black elementary students with at least one black teacher were more likely to graduate from high school and enroll in college.
Along with adding black teachers, Jones says that SPS’ focus is on “adults taking responsibility for creating the conditions for African American students to be successful.” To that end, the district continues to provide racial equity training for its employees.
Data on SPS home-school families do not currently designate race. But on average, since 2014, about 389 families a year in Seattle have chosen the path.
Home-schooling does come with sacrifices. Numerous hours are spent developing and executing educational plans, hiring tutors and driving to lessons.
For some, there’s also concern about their children being educated in isolation.
“My real worry about home-schooling was my kids growing up socially awkward,” laughs Davison.
To curb that anxiety many home-schoolers take advantage of the district’s Cascade Parent Partnership Program.
The Alternative Learning Experience school in upper Queen Anne draws home-schoolers from around the city. Serving 178 K-8 students, it offers an a la carte education, allowing parents to select classes and teachers.
“It’s the district’s best kept secret,” says Principal Owen Gonder.
CJ, Georgia, and Karissa make the 45-minute drive there three days a week so they can take classes in robotics and art.
It’s a long drive. But for them, worth every second.