Ep. 302: Big Ideas — with Bernita and Britany

February 24, 2022

In this edition of Big Ideas series we speak with Dr. Britany Gatewood, a researcher, and Bernita Bradley, the founder of Engage Detroit. We learn why Bernita started her co-op and Dr. Gatewood’s upcoming case study, Teach Me To Teach My Own: Homeschool Advocacy and Parent Agency.

Jason Bedrick: Hello and welcome back to EdChoice Chats. I’m your host, Jason Bedrick Director of Policy at EdChoice. And this is another edition of our Big Ideas Series. Today, I’m grateful to be joined by Dr. Britany Gatewood, a post-doctoral researcher at the Center for Educational Opportunity at Albany State University, as well as Bernita Bradley, the founder of Engaged Detroit, which is a homeschool cooperative. Dr. Gatewood is the author of a forthcoming case study on Engaged Detroit titled, Teach Me To Teach My Own: Homeschool Advocacy and Parent Agency, which is the subject of today’s conversation. Ladies, welcome to the podcast.

Bernita Bradley: Thank you for having us.

Britany Gatewood: Thank you.

Jason Bedrick: Bernita, we’ll start with you. People often have this certain stereotype about what homeschoolers look like, right? They’re usually white. They’re rural. They’re very conservative. Engaged Detroit seems to be very different. So could you tell us a little bit about Engaged Detroit, and especially why you founded it? What sort of need did you see in your community that it fills?

Bernita Bradley: Yeah. So I’d like to, I guess, start with your first statement. People have an assumption that most Black people don’t homeschool, but the reality is Black people have been owning their own education when systems fail them for generations. Black people have been homeschooling their families, even all the way back to slavery, early 1800s, when Black families chose to hide in their homes and teach their children to read by candlelight at night, or however they chose as communities to do this.

So move forward, Engaged Detroit was founded in 2020 based on a couple of things, really the pandemic, and then also just the disparities that families in Detroit have faced for generations. Our school systems only had 16% of our kids reading on grade level by third grade. And I like to always start our out with that to let people know this was going on before the pandemic. The pandemic only woke a lot of appearance up to why those numbers were so low, why children were staggered when it came down to learning processes and things like that. So, we founded Engaged Detroit in 2020 and have been going stronger and growing ever since.

Jason Bedrick: And how many families are participating?

Bernita Bradley: So right now we currently have 44 families participating. And our last number was 73 children, but we’ve had a couple of families join within the last couple weeks so I would estimate about 80 children.

Jason Bedrick: That’s amazing. Could you tell us just a little bit, why did you choose homeschooling for own family?

Bernita Bradley: For my daughter, it was weird, my daughter asked me actually in fifth grade to homeschool. But I’m a community advocate, I’m always doing all of this work around education and choice. And it was one of those things where I was like, “Baby, I don’t want to be your enemy. We don’t need to be enemies. I don’t need to be your teacher and your mom.” But again, me not fully understanding what homeschooling entail. What does it take to do homeschooling? I’m thinking I’m supposed to be sitting at a desk all day with my daughter. I’m at the front of the living room and she’s sitting in a chair over here and I’m like, okay, do this lesson. Now do this lesson, now do.

I just looked at it as school, regular, everyday schooling. And so in 11th grade during the pandemic, my daughter only had encounter with one teacher in her whole entire school, the semester after when school closed down. And she came to me herself and told me, if something didn’t change, she was going to drop out of school and get a GED. And she was going to say, forget like regular school. I was like, “Oh no, no, you’re not, that’s not going to happen.” So I asked, “Okay, what do you want to do then?” She said, “Well, homeschool me.” Okay, fine. Right. And it was an ongoing conversation that we been having with other parents. I just didn’t want to pull her out of school for her last couple of years, but she was open to it and we explored, and here we are today.

Jason Bedrick: Dr. Gatewood, what sparked your interest in studying homeschooling in the Black community?

Britany Gatewood: Well, my research centers specifically, resistance and social movements, and I’ve been very interested in social movements, especially when it comes to Black women. And so when the Center for Education Opportunity had the opportunity to do learning pod research with the Center for Reinventing Public Education, and so we got to choose which learning pod we wanted to do. And since me and Dr. Armand are both from Michigan and Detroit area, we saw this Engaged Detroit, we’re like, this is the one we want to choose, just because we also heard of Bernita and all of the great things that she’s doing. And so that sparked our interest, and especially for me, researching resistance and researching homeschooling as a tool for resistance.

And so Dr. Cheryl Field-Smith, she does a lot of research on resistance and homeschooling as a way of Black families to resist, as Bernita was saying, the gaps within education that we’ve been experiencing for generations. And also adding things like culturally relevant learning. There’s issues within school systems, whether it comes from not just resources, but also disciplinary rates that happen with Black families. So Black families choosing homeschooling in my eyes as my research lens is also a tool of resistance, and a tool of advocacy on behalf of families.

Jason Bedrick: And so when you decided to look specifically at Engaged Detroit, what was your study seeking to uncover?

Britany Gatewood: At the time, what is Engaged Detroit? We came in with a very open lens. We didn’t necessarily have anything in mind, just what is the landscape, right? What do they do every day? How are they structured? So we interviewed parents and we interviewed coaches, and administrators. So we just wanted to know what it was all about. And so we didn’t come in with any preconceived notions of what we thought it was, just because as a researcher you try to go in as objective as possible, especially with qualitative research. We went in just very, let’s see what it’s about. So that’s the lens that we took when beginning the interviews.

Jason Bedrick: And so what did you find when you started looking at Engaged Detroit? And did you find anything that particularly surprised you?

Britany Gatewood: I don’t think we found anything that was particularly surprising. Bernita is a force on herself, right, and so she’s leading Engaged Detroit. We know that it’s going to be amazing. And some of the things that were interesting that did pop up was the fact that a lot of the people that we interviewed, especially the parents, some of them never thought of homeschooling before, and then the pandemic hit, and now they have to homeschool. Some were thinking about homeschooling even before the pandemic, but the majority of them, especially being involved in Engaged Detroit very much said, they were probably homeschool even after this pandemic chronicle ends. They found it very helpful. And also to have a community of Black families to talk about this and veteran homeschoolers, like Bernita and some of the coaches, so the consistency of the community. And also one thing that we found very interesting, in particular me, was the fact it’s very reminiscent of other social justice groups, like let’s say the Black Panthers or other things like that, where it’s not just about education, it’s also mutual aid.

So if the students need something and the families need something outside of education, then they are there to give it. So if it needs help with food, and one quote was, “the children needed desks and chairs”, right? So it’s not just about the education, but education is not going to be successful if the child is not taken care of. The community aspect of yes, we’re doing the education, but we’re also doing the holistic of the family and of the students, was also very impactful. It’s holistic. And also a lot of advocacy, yes, they advocate for homeschooling children, but they’re advocating for children of Detroit in general. A lot of the parents that we spoke to, they never maybe attended school board meetings or did anything like that, and now they are very into the advocacy activism aspect that is encouraged to help, not just their children, but other children within the area.

Jason Bedrick: Now, you mentioned that a lot of these families were already considering homeschooling, but they weren’t before the pandemic, and then with the pandemic, it sort of gave them a nudge or maybe a push, really. Now, we actually saw that already before the pandemic, homeschooling was on the rise in the Black community, but there was a dramatic increase. There was an increase nationwide, but a real spike in the Black community. The Census Bureau released data from a six month period in 2020, from April to October, showing a fivefold increase in homeschooling among Black families.

So one of the questions that a lot of researchers have had, and we still don’t know the answer, is both in and outside the Black community, the families that are going to homeschooling, is this primarily just, we’re trying to protect our kids and make sure they get a quality education during a pandemic, but as soon as this thing is over we’re going back. Or are a lot of these families actually going to continue homeschooling. And you said, that a lot of the families you spoke to said that they were going to continue homeschooling, they weren’t going to go back to the system that they were using previously. So what is it about homeschooling, or the Engaged Detroit homeschool co-op that these families find so attractive that they want to continue doing this?

Bernita Bradley: I would honestly say, first of all, I paid Dr. Britany Gatewood to say all the fabulous things she said about me, but seriously, it’s empowering. So before the pandemic, some of these very same parents were getting calls on from school, like, “Hey, we have a problem with your child. Can you come get them?” Children are being pushed out of schools, Detroit properly, we have school deserts. Children who are brilliant are being labeled as dysfunctional because they aren’t complying with teachers who are stuck in a system that isn’t even supporting them. And parents again, started seeing that during the pandemic. Parents actually got firsthand, how even the staff weren’t supported. We saw in our community, I lived four blocks from Grosse Pointe, which was the richest community in Michigan. And we saw firsthand how those kids went home the first weeks of the pandemic prepared to learn in this new way.

Not that it was probably 100, because it wasn’t 100% any community, but our richer constituents were going home with tools to make learning fundamental for them. Our children did not receive simple tablets or internet connectivity until May. And parents were being told, “Oh, it’s a pandemic. Oh, please be gracious with us. We need you guys to be patient.” But here we are, our reading levels were 16%. So how much more patient do you expect for community members to be when you were already failing us? And then they were saying, “Well, parents don’t understand about homeschooling. They don’t know the nuances that go into educating a child on a daily basis. How are you going to do this?” Some of the same parents you were talking about are some of the same parents who experienced your failure in generations before. So now you’re telling them that they can’t do this for their own children, but they have survived your system so they’ve figured out a way to get out of it.

The other thing was, it was a paradigm shift of the mind. So in our coaching process, it took parents to really understand, like I said, that learning is everywhere. My daughter, I was forcing her to take classes based on the schedule she had in school. I’m like, “No, you need to take chemistry. No, you need to take this. You need to take.” And she was like, “Mom, I do not want to take that.” And my coach, mind you, I benefited from the coaching too, because I didn’t know all of this, so I’m being coached by coach Keisha. And I go back to her and I’m telling her these little things, and I’m kind of proud of myself that I’m being stern on my daughter for homeschooling. And she’s like, “Why are you treating her like that? You know, that’s the same way the system treats her.” And I’m like, “Oh, wow, okay.”

So she helped me rethink, to sit down, talk with my daughter. What do you want to do? So my daughter said, “I want to do forensic science.” I’m constantly telling people this story about her and this forensic science because I just don’t get how you go from chemistry to forensic science, like how did you go past that? And you’re saying, you weren’t interested in chemistry but you like forensic science, but she mastered forensic science. She wants to be in psychology, criminal psychology. So that was her area of interest, but it still equated as a science class. And so helping parents to understand even basic things like that. Baking, baking can become science. Art is in every thing, your history is in everything. So we hosted a month or two of them exploring their own history. Going talking to their elders, doing research on ancestry. Finding out what some of your own history is and what some of your own family members accomplished throughout their journey.

That is so empowering for a child. And it makes them really love learning because now they’re learning something they really want to learn. But they don’t see how it’s still that same science class that they were getting in school because they’re loving it. It’s just empowering for families and for them to see that. Now mind you, we did have a couple of families who return and I’ll be totally honest, we had one family who returned back to regular school this year. Their children really wanted to be around their friends, who are already they’re returning back to homes because they’ve gone right back to the same phone calls. The school has been virtual half of the time. The virtual learning is not what they need. So the mom is like, “Miss Bernita, can I come back?” I’m like, “yes, yes, of course we would never turn away.”

It’s not a fad. It’s not something that is taking place just because of the pandemic. It’s going to happen and there’s going to be a larger drop off. I would even question some of the school systems that are saying their truancy rates are so high. Because a lot of those truancy rates are children who have dropped from the system, and those schools have not counted them as dropped from the system. They would rather drop them as a truancy than to say that they’re actually home schooling because then they get to keep dollars for those children instead of track where they’re really at.

Jason Bedrick: So what are the lessons that you think we should take for policy makers? We got a number of policy makers that listen to this podcast. And clearly these are very personal decisions, but the personal is often political, especially in the aggregate. So if a lot of families are finding that they are more empowered when they take direct control over their children’s education and work together with other parents in the community through homeschool co-ops like you’ve put together, should policy makers just engage in benign neglect, say, okay, if you want to leave the system, go do your thing. Or are there things that they could do to actually empower families further?

Bernita Bradley: So two things, one is the money should follow the child. If a child is homeschooled, I feel like there needs to be a federal funding set aside for that parent to be able to pay for curriculum, to be able to pay for supports that they need for their children. We’re not asking you to put a blank check in a parents pocket. We are asking you to actually fundamentally support homeschool families. This pandemic again, has proven that education systems do not have our children’s best interests at heart. While our children are our most prized possession, they are their hottest commodity, and dollars in seats is not what we need to be seeing right now. I believe that would allow policy makers to have more accountability for schools because if they see more families are leaving those school systems, they will eventually say, “Hey, there’s something wrong here.”

What are you doing as a system that over 30% of your families left to homeschool within two years? What are you doing wrong? That’ll make the schools even look at themselves. So there needs to be policy pushed, like even in Florida, when you look at states like Florida, they support homeschooling financially so that parents can choose curriculum. They can actually choose what core classes their children are doing within their own homes. They even partner with parents more, it makes the schools partner with parents. Because then if I have a good curriculum over here and it’s across town and I can use your money, you’re not the usual student that would normally travel all the way over here, but now I can use that money to help you with your core classes or however it may be. It just needs to be more accountability.

Policy makers need to be looking into the fact that we are at a pivotable time in this life where reimagining school needs to happen so seriously. Oh my God. And people are refusing to reimagine school. They want school that’s normal. They literally want it as normal. They do not want to change. They’re not even again, supporting their own teachers who have fallen off the grid. Teachers have left the industry, and they refuse to prepare those teachers for online learning. But then they say, “Oh, we’ve got a teacher shortage.” Well, the teachers are crying out for help and you’re not even giving them that, but you want the kids to stay. Now mind you, just to show you how homeschooling is possible, we have this new policy, that’s an emergency policy, where anybody can educate a child as long as you have a high school diploma. So how different is that from a parent in their own home educating their child. But then they will say, “Oh, well, parents don’t know what’s best.” Well, so you’re telling me that this person who just graduated from high school can now educate my senior and they know what’s best. You’ve given them an emergency pass, but you won’t give parents that, no.

Jason Bedrick: And Dr. Gateway, based on your research, any advice for policy makers that would like to empower groups like Bernita’s and families who are participating in Engaged Detroit?

Britany Gatewood: Yeah. So going off of what Bernita was saying that the funding is following the children. There’s been education savings accounts that have been happening, I think it’s about 10 states now have had them, where parents can have control over their students educations and they have funding. And so there has been models already done. And Bernita was talking about in Florida, I know it’s in Arizona. Those type of things can be expanded. There’s also talking about capacity building and organizational growth with co-ops. So co-ops or learning pods or those type of things to give them the resources that they need. And so one thing when we were doing our study was the fact of you’re giving a lot of resources to homeschooling co-ops that are in rich White neighborhoods. Bernita was talking about Grosse Pointe or these other very rich areas in Michigan, they’re getting a lot of resources and all those type of things.

Jason Bedrick: When you say resources, do you just mean funding or you mean more than just funding?

Britany Gatewood: So more than just funding. As Bernita was saying, they came home with packets of information. And they get more funding, especially from different private organizations, federal organizations, and those type of things. And so the funding is there, but it’s going to specific people. This also goes to the historic of underfunding, under-resourcing Black and Brown communities. And so one thing that all the researchers they want to put out there like, “Oh, what the pandemic has done to education, especially with Black communities or a place like Detroit.” Education has been failing our students for a very long time, to have such low rates of literacy and those type of things. And the surprise that people want to take their students out of these schools, it’s like, if you want students to stay you should provide them with the resources. I’m from Michigan too, and so I’ve seen the difference from these Detroit schools versus suburban schools and those type of things. We need more capacity building for people that want to homeschool. And also that homeschooling is a choice. In the school choice community, it’s a lot about charter schools or different private schools, and those type of things. But homeschooling is also a type of choice that people can have. And when we were doing the study, there’s such a negative connotation with either homeschoolers, or some of the families believe that because they maybe didn’t graduate college, oh, I can’t homeschool. I don’t have the resources. I don’t know. But you’re giving people that don’t go to a school of education and graduate with teaching certificates now teaching the students. So we need to empower and let parents know that they can teach their kids. They can know what’s best for their students. And we need to give them the resource to do that. We have been so fixed on this particular model of education and we can change it. As Bernita was saying, everyone wants to go back to like, this is how it was students go this time, this time, but it can be a mix and match of different things that benefit the students.

And now, especially with the technology, and technology has exploded, especially since the pandemic, when it comes to educational software and learning management systems, that there are things that we can do to help these students, especially with families that want to homeschool or families that have students with disabilities. That was also a big deal talking to some of the families where their students have IEPs or disabilities, and the school is not helping them. The school is not giving them the resources that they need. When talking to just general families about this, I talked to one family and one of the students who has a disability will have a diaper that needs to be changed, and they will go all day without it being changed. Or they’re not giving them what they need to use the bathroom correctly, these type of things that are happening in the schools. There needs to be better for these schools, but also giving resources and helping building capacity and organizational growth to people that want to homeschool their children.

Bernita Bradley: And if I can expand on that a little bit. So she talked about partnerships, right? Some of the partnerships that we’ve created with Engaged Detroit have been some of the same local partners that partner with our public schools like DAPCEP, Detroit Area Pre College of Engineering, MSU School of Music, Michigan State School of Music, and Wayne State University. We’ve partnered with Keep Growing Detroit. Some of these partners were only partnering with upright schools, like brick and mortar buildings. And during the pandemic, their student count fell off so dramatically. Now some of these partnerships are people I’ve worked with for years doing the work that I’ve been doing. So I went to them and I was like, “Hey, you need students. We have these students here.” They’re like, “Oh, homeschool.” They’re like, “Hey, I never thought about a homeschool class for the music school.” Like, “Oh, okay, let’s try this.”

So now we have this continued partnership. We’ve built over 19 partnerships within the city and across the country with organizations that are willing to say, homeschooling is schooling. But then on the flip side, though, we’ve had some partners we had to push back on because they were like, “Hey, well, your kids can partner, but we need a real transcript.” I’m like, “Okay, well they have their homeschool transcript.” “Oh no, we need a real transcript.” Like, “No, a homeschool transcript is a real transcript.” They’re like, “Oh, well it’s supposed to have a real school on it though not a homeschool.”

Like getting people to even understand rights and laws around homeschooling is key. Every state is different. This year, we had the opportunity to help families in Illinois and families in Maryland to even understand their rights around homeschooling. Because again, Michigan is really fluid, but Maryland is kind of strict, you have to turn stuff in before a certain date, you have to write this type of letter. And so those partnerships is key to learning when they’re in traditional public school and it’s key when they’re in their homes. But affording those scholarship dollars would be able to help those families pay some of those partners that schools traditionally pay to educate children, anyway. Schools aren’t educating children by themselves either, they make it seem like they are, but they have all these partnerships, so afford that to Black families too.

Jason Bedrick: Now of course, researchers play a large role in influencing what policymakers do. So what can researchers do to shine more light on what’s going on in the Black community with regards to homeschooling? And how policy makers can empower families to really provide their children with the quality education that they deserve.

Britany Gatewood: This is an issue with researchers in general, when studying Black and Brown communities is a fact that exploiting them and just using their information, just to get publication, just to do these research projects and then leaving. So actually working with co-ops or learning pods, or what have you, and actually telling their story correctly. There has been issues where researchers or even journalists or those type of things, not correctly telling what is happening and also making it very, let’s say jaded in a certain area.

So being honest about what’s actually happening and not just exploiting the people and research participants that you’re talking to. And using their voice, we always say, when talking about homeschooling and talking about our work with Engaged Detroit, we always uplift Engaged Detroit first, it’s about them and then the researcher. And we don’t just do this just for the notoriety. I think when it comes research, especially with Black homeschooling, a lot of people might bastardize their words, or just do something that makes them more comfortable about the information that is being said, instead of telling what is actually going on and the real experience of these homeschoolers across the nation.

Bernita Bradley: Thank you for that. Because so many times our stories are hijacked and it’s told from a lens that that reporter already had a hidden agenda and it skews it, it skews it, when white families, their homeschooling journeys are excused. It’s seen as this brave mom who decided, I’m going to take a two year sabbatical, or I’m going to take a five year sabbatical to make sure my children are sound and they are good. But for Black families, it’s like all these poor Black families who needed this system to help them figure out their lives. And oh my God, they got this type of funding and oh my God, how dare them? Right. And that should never happen. That’s a part of the problem with our system.

Jason Bedrick: It certainly does take more than just a family, just a school, it does really take an entire community. We’re very glad that we had the opportunity to hear about the incredible work that you’re doing in Detroit, I hope it only continues to grow. Our guests today have been Dr. Britany Gatewood from Albany State University and Bernita Bradley the founder of Engaged Detroit. Again, the title of the forthcoming case study is, Teach Me To Teach My Own: Homeschool Advocacy and Parent Agency. Thank you so much for joining our podcast.

Bernita Bradley: Thank you for having us.

Britany Gatewood: Thank you.

Jason Bedrick: Thanks so much for joining us. This has been another addition of EdChoice Chats, the Big Idea Series. If you have any ideas for authors, you’d like us to interview for the Big Idea Series, please send them to media@edchoice.org and be sure to subscribe to our podcast. Follow us on social media @edchoice. And don’t forget to sign up for our emails on our website at edchoice.org. Thanks so much. We’ll catch you next time.