"Most black people go to school and never have a teacher that looks like them, and this is particularly true for black boys," she said. Similar concerns, she noted, led to the creation of single-sex schools—a particularly apt comparison for Penn-Nabrit, who attended Wellesley. "If women benefit from having a period of isolation from the larger group, that could be applicable to black boys as well."
Mazama, meanwhile, said that rooting children in their heritage in an educational setting allows them to do better emotionally and socially. "If anything, homeschooled black children would be much stronger because they would not have been devastated at an early age by racism," she said. She explained that the absence of these early destructive experiences, combined with a heritage-focused curriculum, ultimately allows children to recognize and deal constructively with racism—"not by denying it, but by confronting it because they are comfortable with who they are."
"That’s the way I teach my own children," she continued. "I have seen this work."
Back in San Diego, Vanessa Robinson has also seen it work. Now that she's been homeschooling Marvell for five months, she notices that he is better adjusted and has moved farther along academically than he did in public school.
"He’s a completely different person," she said, reporting that his confidence is higher compared to where it was in public school, allowing him to make friends in his neighborhood and learn more quickly. Robinson said that, while she bought a set of lesson plans with a suggested timeline, Marvell now moves so quickly that she has to add lessons together from an array of instructional programs just to keep up. And when he finds something he loves, she lets him dive deep. "Right now, Marvell says he wants to work for NASA, so we’re really focusing on getting in depth into science and space," she said. His new interest is a thrilling prospect for Robinson, a registered nurse with a background in science.
"I just want my son to be a free thinker and to question everything," she said. "I wish that when I was growing up, I could have done that."
* This post previously stated that both of Paula Penn-Nabrit's sons graduated from Princeton with honors. We regret the error.
** This post previously stated that Penn-Nabrit's husband had an advanced degree in the humanities. We regret the error.
*** This post previously stated that the graduate students Penn-Nabrit hired to instruct her sons attended the University of Ohio. We regret the error.
This story was produced in collaboration with The Hechinger Report.