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ROWLETT — Sharby Hunt-Hart stacked a table at her local library with colored pencils, skin-tone crayons and picture books with Black girl protagonists. Four girls, ready to start their school day, looked up at her.
“I want our big girls to think about the kind of person you want to be,” Hunt-Hart, an educator of 17 years and a mom, told the girls.
With a marker, Addi, 6, furrowed her brow and got to work. She drew a picture of herself with her hair short, like it was that day. She added blue scribbles for the sky and green scribbles for the grass. Her arm in the picture was extended, holding a flower: “I gave Mommy a flower.”
“You want to be a giver,” Hunt-Hart said. “Thank you for sharing, Addi.”
Here in the eastern suburbs of Dallas, three mothers are home-schooling to reimagine education for their daughters. During school days, the girls get in about two hours of core instruction like reading and math, but they also draw, go on nature walks and build fairy villages with the rocks they find.
The mothers say their public schools were not equipped to create a learning space that’s wholly safe for Black kids or embraces their culture and identity. Together they create lesson plans to meet each girl’s learning needs and adapt their pace when a child is struggling.
The mothers want to expand their group and create a “microschool” that serves more Black boys and girls in the region, mirroring the Black Mothers’ Forum schools in Arizona. Microschools refer to learning settings where class sizes are small, typically composed of fewer than 15 students, and the schedule and curricula are tailored to the needs of each student. It is seen as an arrangement between home-schooling and traditional schooling.
“What we're doing with the microschools is decolonizing what we know of education,” Chantel Jones-Bigby, mom to Addi, said. “And we have so much less resources. We're working with so much less, but yet, our children are doing academically, emotionally better.”
The mothers already have spoken with other parents ready to pull their kids out of private and public schools to participate in their collective. But to grow, they say they need the Legislature to create education savings accounts, a voucher-style program through which families could access state funds and pay for private school or alternative education settings.
At the state Capitol, legislators are at odds over whether to use taxpayer dollars for non-public education. Democrats and rural Republicans in the Texas House have long blocked voucher programs, saying any funds for education should go to public schools struggling financially after the pandemic and amid inflation. Supporters say education savings accounts give parents choices beyond public schools on how their children can learn.
Jones-Bigby said the public education system must face the reality that they often fail to serve Black kids well.
“I didn't just remove my daughter from a building in a school. I removed her from the consciousness that was there that was creating the symptoms of what I was seeing with her in her learning,” she said. “Even if [schools] have more money, if you still have the same culture and consciousness, but new technology, what does that change?”
Year one in public school
Hunt-Hart’s daughter Lacey had a hard time in public school.
Meltdowns were commonplace after coming back from kindergarten, stretching out for over an hour when she got home. The exhaustion and overstimulation from the classroom often boiled over into tears.
Lacey, who prefers to cartwheel instead of walking and shouts when she sees a bird, stifled herself in kindergarten, Hunt-Hart said. Lacey learned her energy would not be celebrated. She watched other kids in her class be disciplined for their loudness. So she shifted her mannerisms, even earning a leadership award at the end of the year for being quiet and well-behaved.
“I don't want my kid getting the leadership award at 5; I want her to work through her humanity,”said Hunt-Hart, who knows all too well that loudness in Black girls is often seen as a threat. “Schools teach kids to color inside the lines, to walk down the hall with your hands behind your back, to not to feel the pattern on the wall. They teach you not to talk and to not let your voice be loud.”
Lacey also struggled in a classroom where she was the only Black student — a worry that she shared with her kindergarten teacher after class. Just 15% of students were Black at her public elementary school, Hunt-Hart said.
One school day in February, Lacey got pulled out of class for not keeping up with the school’s dress code. She had dressed herself for the first time that morning, carefully picking out navy blue leggings with unicorns on them. The school’s uniform only permits students to wear khaki or navy blue pants.
Within 10 minutes of school starting, the principal had pulled her out of class and instructed her to wear another student's khaki pants, a few sizes too big.
“Is uniform what’s really important? Or is it that she’s here, that she’s present and ready to learn?” Hunt-Hart said. “The rules [in public schools] are so much more important than their humanity, making them comply to what's easiest for adults instead of what's best for kids.”
Four generations in public schools
Generations of Hunt-Hart’s family have struggled as Black children in Texas public schools. Lacey’s grandmother was one of the last graduating classes at Dunbar High School in Lufkin before desegregation. Lacey’s great-grandmother started school but had to drop out to clean homes for work.
When Hunt-Hart entered the Lufkin public school district, she quickly learned that some remnants of segregation had never truly been scrubbed away — much like the “Blacks only” and “whites only” signs over the water fountains in town that were still up, just painted over.
Her principal, a pillar of the Black community, would greet her and other students at the front every morning in a suit. He was an anchor for Hunt-Hart and made her feel protected. But one year, his office was set on fire.
When Hunt-Hart got to fourth grade, her teacher seemed to stare at her and the Black kids with a misplaced anger. For the first time, Hunt-Hart got Cs on her report card.
“She hated the Black kids. ... It didn't matter how much we smiled or tried to dazzle with good handwriting or completing our work early or being as quiet as a mouse,” Hunt-Hart said. “I just remember knowing I don't know how to be smart anymore as a 9-year-old.”
Up through high school, Hunt-Hart mastered the tap dance of people pleasing. Now she was watching her daughter learn the same dance. She had to try a different way.
“You find that they're pieces of you that have been eaten away because of the assimilation,” she said.
Public school is ‘our bread and butter’
The home-schooling mothers have invested decades in public education. Their husbands are athletic coaches and high school teachers.
"We believe in the public school system," Hunt-Hart said. "It’s our bread and butter."
They also know its shortcomings, she said.
Anna Sneed, a mom in the home-schooling trio, spent 14 years as a high school teacher before she became an assistant principal. Her classes were “heavy on the love, light on the social studies,” Sneed likes to say.
Her students knew what they were going to get in her classroom. She was going to be tough on them but she would respect them and make them feel seen and heard.
But Sneed didn’t have the space as a teacher to tailor her instruction to every students’ needs.
"I see them for 90 minutes at a time," she said. "I can't teach you about the fall of the Roman Empire 34 different ways in 90 minutes."
When her daughter turned school age, Sneed looked into the neighborhood school her family was zoned for. It had received a C in the Texas Education Agency’s accountability rating system. And students of color were performing far worse than their white peers. Sneed knew there were good teachers in public schools, but she still couldn’t send her daughter to a system she saw as broken beyond repair.
“Becoming a mom took the rose-colored glasses off of my career as a teacher,” Sneed said.
Arizona, education savings accounts and microschools
Black students tend to experience harsher discipline than white students in public school, even when it comes to minor infractions like dress code violations. That has damaging effects on their sense of belonging at school and their academic performance years later, according to research from the American Psychological Association.
If schools don’t rethink how they discipline and treat Black kids, Jones-Bigby worries it can put them on the wrong track.
“Most of the day, they spend it in an environment where they are devalued. They are lost. They are waiting for direction,” Jones-Bigby said. “Someone has a plan for my child when they are lost. It involves an orange suit and a 4-by-4 box.”
In Arizona, 40 Black moms gathered in 2016 with the same worries for their children, ready to dismantle what they call the school-to-prison pipeline. Their kids were bullied in school and did not feel supported by the teachers. The moms started by pushing school districts to form a re-entry-after-suspension plan and find alternatives to suspension as a disciplinary measure.
By 2021, they had opened their own microschool, also known as outsourced home schooling. The Arizona microschools depend on the state’s education savings account program for sustainability.
“The public school system that was in place was not doing what it was supposed to do. Our children were not reaping the benefits,” said Janelle Wood, the founder of Black Mothers Forum in Arizona. “And so we needed a tool to help us fuel our vehicle of the microschool in order for us to grow.”
Arizona is widely seen as ground zero for school vouchers. The state has one of the largest education savings account programs in the country, where almost any child is eligible. The state began with a limited version of the program in 2011 that only served students with disabilities. In 12 years, enrollment in the program has grown from about 150 students to over 60,000.
A stalemate at the Texas Legislature
Like in Arizona, the mothers in the Dallas suburbs want to grow their small teaching collective with the help of an education saving accounts program in Texas.
Education savings accounts would allow families to exit the public education system and use taxpayer dollars to pay for alternative learning settings like a microschool. The three mothers would welcome those funds to scale up and pay for instructional materials and a dedicated learning space.
The fate of school vouchers and the mothers’ plans hang in balance while the state Legislature and Gov. Greg Abbott wrestle over creating this type of program.
The governor — a staunch supporter of education savings accounts — called a special legislative session last month asking lawmakers to pass a voucher program after similar legislation failed during the regular session. With less than a week to go before the end of the special session, it remains to be seen if lawmakers can reach a consensus. Abbott has threatened to call another special session if lawmakers don’t act on vouchers and promised political repercussions during next year’s elections for those who get in the way.
While voucher bills have routinely passed in the Senate, they have not gotten a floor vote in the House in recent years. Rural Republicans have often banded with Democrats to shut down vouchers.
Opponents say vouchers mean less money for public schools, which already do not get enough funding to raise teacher salaries and meet their other needs. When students leave public schools for alternative education settings, schools get less funds because state funding is tied to student attendance.
Supporters like Jones-Bigby hope student departures will push public schools to innovate. She said families need more school options to ensure their kids can get what they need.
“As much as I would love the public school system to work for my child, it doesn’t,” Jones-Bigby said. “Am I responsible to the system or am I responsible to my child?”
She doesn’t have to think twice — she picks her daughters every time.
The mom's daughters draw self-portraits at the Rowlett Public Library in Rowlett on October 26, 2023. The self portrait is part of a “hero’s journey” activity run by the mothers where the daughters think about who they are, what makes them special, and what they want to become.
Shelby Tauber for The Texas Tribune
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