Educational Equity · homeschooling · Hybrid Learning · NYC Schools · NYC Schools Reopening · online learning

Independence Day: How Covid Spurred NYC Families To Explore All Their School Options

“How’s homeschooling going?” I am asked regularly by those who know I allowed my middle child to leave Stuyvesant High School this past November, two months into his Junior year. (I was actually stopped on the street by a woman who pointed at me and told her kid, “That’s the mom who let her son drop out of school!”)

“I have no idea,” I answer honestly.

That’s because one of my conditions for his leaving public school for homeschooling was that it would require no effort on my part. He would do all of the work. He would research the relevant law, he would file the paperwork, he would make his own lesson plans, and he would pay for any textbooks or lab equipment out of money he made at his part-time job (which he would have more time to do, he argued, if he weren’t chained to a traditional high school schedule).

My son explained his reasons for wanting to leave Stuyvesant, here.

I explained my husband’s and my terror at his choices — and why we finally acquiesced — here.

My husband is African-American. I am an immigrant. We were both raised to believe that you went to school, you worked hard, you went to college, you worked hard, you got a job, you worked hard, so that maybe, just maybe, you’d be somewhat accepted by those fortunate enough to be born with all the advantages we lacked. And then you’d pass those advantages on to your children.

Not that either of us followed the exact paths expected of us. My husband, after a decade of working in tech, took a major pay cut to become a middle school math and physics teacher. Because he really likes being a middle school math and physics teacher. 

I worked in television production and am currently a novelist. Two careers not known for their stability or job security.

We taught all three of our children to be creative, to pursue knowledge for knowledge’s sake, to develop interests and passions, to be independent thinkers.

Then, when our seventeen-year-old took us up on it, we panicked. It was not my proudest moment.

When I finally accepted that I was letting my African-American son (“You’re acting like a rich white kid,” my husband raged, “you are not a rich white kid!”) drop out of one of the top public schools in the country, one that’s at the center of New York City’s battle over academic standards, achievement, integration, etc… I thought I was being a maverick, thinking outside of the box, a radical nonconformist.

Turns out I was part of a larger trend.

When in June 2021 The New Yorker publishes The Rise of Black Homeschooling, it’s hard to keep feeling like an outlier. (We’re going to ignore the part where the author suggests Black families are simply being manipulated by nefarious conservative forces out to privatize education, since no Black parents could have come on their own to the conclusion that what their children were receiving in public school was inadequate. As I’ve written before, they’re supposed to be grateful for every crumb. We gave you Brown v. Board of Education! What else do you want? What do you mean that was the first step to ruining Black schools? Don’t you even want to be seated next to magic, white children? What are you going to ask for next? Community control of schools? If we’ve told you once, we’ve told you a thousand times: Let the experts handle it. They know best.)

According to the US Census Bureau, since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in spring of 2020, the number of households choosing independent parent and child-led homeschooling has doubled – from 5.4% to 11.1%. The biggest increase came in communities of color. Black families saw a 500% increase in homeschool households, skyrocketing from 3.3% to 16.1%.

Locally, as of October 2020, the NYC Department of Education reported that 10,667 students formerly enrolled in public schools had been withdrawn for homeschooling, a 31% increase over the previous year.

The reasons for the withdrawals ranged from parents, especially those of color, being unable to trust that the public school system would keep their children safe from the virus — as tallied here, parents of color are used to being let down by the system in a way that New York Times reporters might not be able to understand — to parents seeing less racism from teachers and administrators with online learning. Both reasons contribute to students of color being the majority of those learning remotely, and parents of color being less likely to push for full time school reopening. (Which should prove a challenging hesitation to overcome now that Mayor Bill de Blasio has announced there will be no remote option in September 2021. He expects all schools to be open five days a week for all students. And he expects them all to show up. Then again, that’s what he expected last year, too. And 60% still insisted on staying home.)

But the main thing parents of all races learned while their children were learning from home — whether by their choice or not — was exactly what was happening at school on a daily basis. Despite being hit over the head with the message that all teachers are heroes right now and that any dissent from the status quo was “teacher bashing,” parents quickly came to the realization that yes, some teachers were going above and beyond — while others were slacking, checked out completely, or were never that effective to begin with.

If we take for granted that there are good and bad doctors, lawyers, bankers, chefs, writers, and computer programmers — and that there are certainly good and bad cops– then how can we ever blindly believe that all teachers are “good?” (Other than the fact that 97% of all NYC teachers are officially rated “effective” or “highly effective.”)

Some families chose to deal with the inadequate education they believed their children were receiving in public schools by hiring tutors. (Go to any NYC parents Facebook group and see the dozens of ads soliciting instructional help for all subjects at all grade levels.) Others left for local private schools, or decamped for the NY suburbs, New Jersey, Connecticut and Florida.

Still others chose to homeschool. As a longtime school-choice advocate, I support any choice a parent makes that they believe will be best for their child. (This is where my independent thinking, self-homeschooling seventeen-year-old would interject to say that parents don’t know what’s best for their children, children know what’s best for themselves — but that’s an argument he and I can have on our own time.)

If there is any silver lining to the COVID pandemic (yes, I have been accused of toxic positivity) it’s that when parents were forced to take charge of their child’s education instead of outsourcing it as we previously had been doing, we realized that we actually could take charge of it, and in a variety of ways, some traditional and some more nonconformist (even if we ultimately turned out to be part of a national trend).

That’s an Independence Day worth celebrating!

What do you think?

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