Last year, Survival Mandieka helped two of her daughters, Samantha and Salina, with remote learning. Unlike me, she did not pull out her hair or bang her head against the kitchen table. On the contrary, she treasured the experience.
The challenge of being her children's teacher "strengthened" her, she said. And Mandieka began to imagine the possibility of educating all three of her young children, even after traditional schools reopened for good.
"It gave me a perspective on what home-schooling could be," said Mandieka, who lives in Shakopee. "The pandemic showed us we could actually do it."
This fall, Mandieka stopped sending her daughters to a private Christian school and decided to home-school her kids, giving her more autonomy over their learning. The COVID-19 era has fueled an explosion in home-schooling across the nation. In Minnesota, nearly 31,000 students were registered with the state as being home-schooled in the 2020-2021 school year, about a 50% increase from the previous year.
A national survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau suggests that the recent surge in home-schooling is especially strong among Black families. It's unclear if that trend is playing out in Minnesota because state education officials do not track home-school students by race.
But the national rise in Black home-schooling is not a mystery to the members of Black Homeschool Scholars With Swagg, an informal community of Twin Cities parents and their home-schooled kids who meet weekly for socializing and support. I stumbled upon them at Theodore Wirth Regional Park one morning as the kids and teens were embarking on a kale-eating contest. (One boy was nearly gagging on what certainly is an acquired taste.)
When the group first met a couple of years ago at a library, the moms were seated in a circle, detailing their children's experiences in traditional school settings. "There was something traumatic that happened to a lot of us," said co-founder Rey Sirakavit. "We were just exhausted."
They spoke of racism at school, bullying by other students, policies that favored white families and bias among teachers. Black students are suspended at far greater rates than white students, and Minnesota has historically struggled with discipline disparities across race.
Sirakavit, a former public school administrator and teacher who had moved to Elk River from Denver, had two daughters with painful experiences in public schools. When it came time to enroll her youngest child, a boy named Zealous whom educators had deemed "gifted," she still believed the traditional school system was best.
"I was one of the biggest advocates for public schools," she said. "I advocated for public schools more than public schools advocated for my kids."
When Zealous was in third grade, he attended a grade school in Minneapolis where Sirakavit was the principal. Zealous says teachers came down on him hard for what he considered to be minor offenses, such as trying to take a break from class to see his mom during the school day. That resulted in a detention. Another teacher called him and his friend "stupid boys," he recalled.
Now 12, Zealous appreciates his atypical school experience, one that offers him plenty of breaks. His mother seizes on his interests, and he's read traditional classics like "The Count of Monte Cristo" and young adult books by African American authors Christopher Paul Curtisand Jason Reynolds.
Another assignment might involve watching a Hindi movie and charting cultural differences between American and Indian culture. For social studies, he's researched lesser-known abolitionists and civil rights activists.
"My mom knows me best — what I'm good at and how to teach me," he said, adding that the time spent with her has brought them closer. "Even though she's my mother, I feel like I'm getting to know her a lot better."
Granted, home-schooling is not for every child — or every parent. Many of the mothers in the group are business owners, or their spouses work full-time, affording them financial stability. They also had to overcome any insecurity — and stigma — about taking their children's learning into their own hands.
On a sun-drenched fall morning, the Black Homeschool Scholars With Swagg roamed a corn maze and bounced on an inflatable bubble. Before they posed for a picture, they sang a few bars from a chant:
I am Black, I am powerful, I'm a child of God. I was created for a purpose.
Co-founder Tryenyse Jones, an entrepreneur and artist, said home school allows families to cultivate their child's passions. Her son Priest, 15, is now working on his third hip-hop album.
"With regular traditional school, he wouldn't be able to stay up late, practice, and be in the studio, recording. This is part of his life destiny," she said. "I'm not damning the whole public education system, but we have found that this has been the most beneficial for us."
Some parents remember feeling like they didn't belong in predominantly white school settings. Sameka Edmon had enrolled her daughter in a prestigious public school district in a tony suburb outside Chicago. While volunteering with other moms over the lunch hour, one parent assumed Edmon was "the help," she recalled.
It reinforced some of the troubling accounts her daughter, then in kindergarten, had been sharing with her.
"If they don't acknowledge me as a parent when I walk through those doors, how are they going to treat her?" Edmon said.
Researchers at the University of Minnesota are studying results of a statewide survey conducted during the past school year for K-12 public school students, families and educators. One surprising finding was that a disproportionate number of Black and Brown families reported that their students were learning more during the pandemic compared with pre-COVID times, when classrooms were open.
A working hypothesis is that students of color were spending less time serving out suspensions and detentions, said U of M graduate student Coy Carter, who is studying the issue. "Parents actually have more time to teach their students when they're not dealing with discipline issues that don't arise in the home," he said.
It's been a trying year and a half, during which these families have endured not only a pandemic but the police killing of George Floyd.
Zealous remembers feeling a pit in his stomach after hearing about Floyd's murder and finding solace through his home-school friends at their regular meetups in Minneapolis.
"Being with them, there's this unspoken thing," he said. "We don't have to say it, but we know what we're all going through."