In the 1970s and ’80s, groups of primarily white, Christian fundamentalists drove a surge in the number of home-schooling families around the United States. As they pulled their children out of public schools, they also worked to dismantle state and local regulatory hurdles that kept kids in bricks-and-mortar institutions. By 1994, over 90% of families who home-schooled were white.
During the pandemic, there’s been another increase in the number of families that are home-schooling, only this time, the families leading the charge are decidedly more diverse.
Census data shows that rates of home schooling doubled between the start of the pandemic in March 2020 and the fall of that year. The largest growth was among Black families, with a fivefold increase, but all racial groups tracked have seen increases. By October 2020, nearly 20% of adults who reported home-schooling their children were Black, 24% were Hispanic or Latino, and 48% were white, according to data from the Household Pulse Survey by the U.S. Census Bureau. The same survey found that only 19% of all adults who reported home schooling have a bachelor’s degree or higher, and 53% report their income to be less than $50,000 a year.
Why We Wrote This
The pandemic has prompted families to rethink the best way for their children to learn. For some parents, the decision to home-school is driven by culture as much as by academics.
According to Census data, the number of Hispanic families home-schooling doubled over the first several months of the pandemic. This increase has been felt by leaders on the ground, including those who run home-school groups or online home-school communities for Hispanic and Latino families.
Gisela Quiñones in Indiana has been home-schooling her two children for years and runs a Facebook group for Latino families who home-school. Over the course of the pandemic, “the group pretty much exploded nationally,” says Ms. Quiñones, mother of a 10- and a 12-year-old.
“Some parents are really worried about COVID and their child getting sick, but one of the main reasons is about culture. We want our children to learn certain things now,” says Ms. Quiñones. “We want them to know a lot about their culture.”
The Census survey didn’t separate out data for Native Americans, nor did it explore home-school participation by religion. But Native American and Muslim leaders say they believe rates have increased in their communities as well, after the pandemic gave families the time and space to reflect on whether traditional schools were really serving their needs.
While hard data is scarce, participation in Muslim home-schooling groups has gone up. The nonprofit Muslim Homeschool Network now has several thousand likes and follows on its Facebook page. The group connects Muslim home-schoolers in Southern California by hosting events and providing resources, such as books and curriculum. Fatima Siddiqui, an MHN member, says the group also has a WhatsApp group that is now up to 150 members.
Since 2015, Kelly Tudor, in Texas, has run a Facebook group for Indigenous home-school families. In the past year and a half, that number has ballooned; there are now over 1,000 parents in the group.
“I had a lot of issues and there was a lot of incorrect information and stereotypes taught to us,” says Ms. Tudor of how her teachers taught Native American issues in school. “When we would try to inform the teacher, we would get called names.”
The three families profiled below came to home schooling for different reasons, but each family expressed disappointment with the public system and a desire to ground their children more firmly in their family’s identity and values.
Before 2020, Helene Gaddie had never really considered home schooling. But ever since the 6- and 9-year-olds she’s raising were sent home at the start of the pandemic, she and her husband have been their primary teachers. The family has chosen a hybrid home-school model – half a day of distance learning with the local school and half a day of activities and lessons arranged at home.
“I thought we were failing, but the boys’ grades are OK,” says Ms. Gaddie, a member of the Oglala Lakota Nation. “They’re average.”
When the boys’ no-fee private school – on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, where the family lives – reopened to in-person learning more quickly than Ms. Gaddie thought was safe, she enrolled them in the tribally controlled public school she’d gone to as a child. That school continues to offer a distance-learning option – three hours a day of instruction from a grade-level teacher – and Ms. Gaddie and her husband take care of the rest.
“For our recess they get to go outside and practice archery,” she says. “They get to tan the hides that they make, make drums, work directly in the garden and be present.”
It’s also easier to participate in events on the seasonal Indigenous calendar, like the annual buffalo harvest or sacred site visits, that would previously have meant pulling the children from school.
The boys, whom she refers to as her grandsons, or takoja in Lakota, are her nephew’s biological children. She sees their upbringing, steeped now in the traditions and language of their people, as a sure path to making them stronger individuals. “If you know your culture, if you know where you come from, you’re stronger,” she says. “You’re stronger minded. You learn better.”
Ms. Gaddie has thought deeply about the education of the young people of her tribe. In 2013, she, her husband, and her cousin founded a nonprofit called Generations Indigenous Ways that offers after-school science programs and seasonal outdoor science camps.
“What we’re trying to do is revive our culture,” she says. “So it’s really hard having them in school anyway, because our culture is more diluted. These [schools] are in our homelands, our Lakota homelands here. But there’s no enforcement of language or kinship.”
It’s not easy maintaining jobs, motivating the boys – “I don’t care about what anybody says, stickers work” – and making ends meet. They get free school lunches delivered, but the family receives no other outside financial support. She and her husband are both artists, and Ms. Gaddie earns a modest stipend from their nonprofit. It’s not really enough, she says, but “we make it work.”
She’s not sure if she’ll continue home-schooling once she feels it’s safe for the children to return to school in person. She thinks she’ll let her older boy make his own choice.
“He’s a normal, wild Lakota boy,” she says, a smile in her voice. “He’ll adjust to anything.”
Olga Hidalgo had been volunteering at her children’s schools for years by the time the pandemic hit. The mother of two, who lives in Florida and runs a mobile pet grooming business with her husband, considered volunteering to be the best way to play an active role in her kids’ education.
“I noticed the kids were not respecting authority,” Mrs. Hidalgo, who is originally from Peru, says in Spanish, through an interpreter. “Many teachers were not motivated to teach the young people, and they felt like the students were not being respectful toward them.”
Even before the pandemic, her daughter asked to be pulled from high school. And once she transitioned to virtual instruction, Mrs. Hidalgo’s daughter grew more interested in learning at home.
Mrs. Hidalgo’s son, meanwhile, struggled to complete virtual class assignments without a cellphone or laptop. Once he had the right technology, Mrs. Hidalgo says, he was exposed to inappropriate pictures on Instagram shared by other students.
“I had a friend who already did home-school,” Mrs. Hidalgo says, “and when I went to visit, I saw how she was doing the schoolwork with her children. It just made me think my children had another option to learn at home without that hostile environment.”
Early in fall 2020, Mrs. Hidalgo and her husband scoured the internet for curriculum and lesson plans that they could use at home to teach their kids. All four Hidalgos love American history, and a dual-enrollment course allowed their 17-year-old daughter to earn college credit while sharing the class content with her brother and parents. The Hidalgos’ 14-year-old son also jumped at the opportunity to earn college credit early, and enrolled in communications and composition courses.
The Hidalgos joined a home-schooling group at their church, where her children play the drums and piano in the band.
“Now they have even more friends – closer and more meaningful relationships – than they had at school,” Mrs. Hidalgo says.
Although she hesitates to speak for the thousands of Hispanic and Latino parents who choose to home-school, Mrs. Hidalgo says her culture is very family-oriented.
“We like our children to have a connection with parents and grandparents and extended family,” she says. “Home-school is attractive because you get to spend more time as a family.”
Fatima Siddiqui always knew she wanted to home-school her kids.
She became fascinated with the idea while studying for her degrees in childhood education, psychology, and math education. She thought the idea “just went so well … with that natural bond between a parent and child.”
A former private school teacher and assistant principal in New York, Ms. Siddiqui began home-schooling her kids six years ago after moving to Diamond Bar, California. She represents a growing number of Muslim families who are forgoing the public school system.
Many of the Muslim parents who are now choosing to go this route, unlike those in the past, are younger, born and raised in America, public school graduates, highly educated, and more diverse. The lack of personal attention students receive in a public school setting, the possibility of encountering bullying or Islamophobia, and a take on human sexuality and gender that many parents find too liberal were among the reasons Ms. Siddiqui and others she knows in the Muslim community cite for choosing to home-school. The ability to structure a school day to include the five daily prayers and to incorporate Islamic knowledge and study of the Quran, the Islamic holy book, side by side with secular subjects like reading, writing, math, science, and history was also appealing to Muslim home-schoolers interviewed for this article.
Ms. Siddiqui says she’s able to provide her kids with a “stronger Muslim identity” because they’re reading about Muslim characters. She can also help them apply Islamic thinking, and is able to introduce principles and concepts of Islam into all subjects. For example, when teaching a unit on telling time, Ms. Siddiqui says she would incorporate verses from the Quran that talk about time.
For many parents, including Ms. Siddiqui, religion isn’t the only driving force.
“I felt like I would be able to give more of the world to my kids based on their interests, on their skill sets, and help them become more well-rounded individuals by exposing them to a lot of different things at their level, at their pace,” Ms. Siddiqui says.
The mother of five has home-schooled four of her kids so far. Her high schoolers are now independent learners. One daughter is a dual-enrolled student at a community college and in a seminary program. Ms. Siddiqui is the primary home educator for her two younger children.
She says home schooling allows her to give her kids opportunities to “go really deep into topics.” When it was time to learn about the ocean, for example, they went to the beach. That way, Ms. Siddiqui says, “we’re learning about the ocean, not through a book, but we’re at the ocean, learning. We’re at the tide pools. … We’re making learning not just theoretical, but practical.”
At the same time, she says she is able to develop a stronger bond with her children by learning alongside them.
“You’re able to have deeper conversations, go deeper into a subject,” she says. “If there’s a math lesson that needs to be repeated, it’s fine. We had to repeat a whole year of math and it was OK. We could spend the whole year on a topic and get really deep into it.”
Prior to the pandemic, and even during its first year, Ms. Siddiqui says many parents reached out to her, asking how to get started. However, this school year she’s noticed that some families who started to home-school in 2020, and even some veteran home-schoolers, put their kids back in public schools, citing issues related to mental health.
“The pandemic really took a toll on kids, mostly middle school and high school,” she says. “It was difficult on parents. It was difficult on the kids.”
But despite that reversal by some families, Ms. Siddiqui says she expects home-schooling numbers to rise again in a year or two.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify how the Census data on home schooling relates to Native Americans.
This story about home schooling was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.