CHICAGO — For months, Chicago Public Schools has ramped up its push to re-engage the about 100,000 students officials worry might not show up when campuses reopen this fall. The district’s efforts include everything from tutoring corps and student job recruiting to phone calls and home visits.
But some of the missing students may not be missing at all. Instead, they may be part of a growing number of homeschooled students.
The reason for the confusion? The state of Illinois is one of only 11 that don’t require homeschooling families to register, making it nearly impossible to know who is missing and who is being taught at home.
In the last school year, the families of 369 students in the Chicago school district submitted paperwork to announce they would homeschool, CPS spokesperson James Gherardi said. Although that represents only a fraction of Chicago’s roughly 340,000 students, it is still a sharp jump from the 2018-2019 and 2019-2020 school years, when 159 and 129 students were registered as homeschooling, respectively.
The number also doesn’t capture the full scale of homeschooling and how the practice has exploded during the pandemic, as parents searched for COVID-safe options and ways to improve the quality of their children’s schooling.
Brian Ray, co-founder of the National Home Education Research Institute, estimates homeschooling doubled nationwide from March 2020 to March 2021, accounting for about 9 percent of the country’s school-age population. Illinois saw between 170,000 and 210,000 homeschool students last spring, Ray said. No one knows the numbers for Chicago.
Ray expects rates to decline somewhat this fall as more public schools open and work to attract families. Other researchers say the opposite.
“I predict that we’re going to see more of” a rise, said Cheryl Fields-Smith, who co-founded the Black Family Homeschool Educators and Scholars group and researches homeschooling at the University of Georgia. “We’re not out of the pandemic.”
To Fields-Smith, a couple of factors help explain the past year’s homeschooling boom.
When in-person classrooms started reopening across the country, some parents pulled their children from school buildings to escape the spread of the coronavirus. In addition, concerns about curriculum and instruction also surfaced during remote learning. When students were attending class from home, many parents for the first time found themselves observing — and scrutinizing — what their children were being taught, as well as the structure of their school days.
Not only has homeschooling grown, but it has also become significantly more diverse, she said. The proportion of Black families homeschooling rose fivefold between spring 2020 and fall 2020 — from 3.3 percent to 16.1 percent, far outpacing any other racial or ethnic group, according to the US Census Bureau’s household pulse survey. Fields-Smith says she attributes the increase to the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on Black families, as well as to a growth in infrastructure that makes homeschooling more accessible.
Homeschooling can be a less expensive option than private schools, which also saw a pandemic boom. Plus, more services to support homeschooling parents have popped up in recent years, including trends that were in full swing well before the pandemic began: A new market of online learning tools. An accumulation of centrally managed co-ops and “pods,” which are small groups of students that gather to learn.
Nationwide, scholars have found that some parents of Black students turn to homeschooling in response to racism they encounter in public school systems. Studies have found that Black students are systemically over-disciplined and receive less academic support than their non-Black peers.
“The parent has to make a decision: ‘If this is how you see my child, as a problem, this isn’t going to be good for my child. So I need to educate,’ ” Fields-Smith said. “They will try to work things out with teachers and with school systems, but a lot of times, they can’t get what their child needs.”
Education quality and flexibility also play key roles in the decision of Black parents to homeschool, Fields-Smith said. Some families choose to homeschool without ever having enrolled their children in public schools.
Aziza Butler is one of those parents. She runs learning pods through WeSchool Academy, a resource center serving Chicago homeschooling families on the South side and in surrounding suburbs. Butler, like many of the families she works with, is Black. With most traditional homeschooling resources targeted toward non-Black people, she said her clients often wondered, “Is this a white thing to do?”
But a growth in non-white homeschooling programs such as hers is helping dismantle that narrative, she said.
Engagement in Butler’s monthly parent educator training programs has nearly quadrupled over the past 18 months as families have sought flexibility and a different learning style, she said. About 10 parents were showing up regularly before the pandemic. Now, she regularly sees 35 to 40 parents at the sessions.
“They never saw themselves as homeschooling at all,” Butler said. “But they were like, ‘Teach me.’ ”
While parents such as Butler find a solution in homeschooling, the growth in the practice — and the state’s lack of registration — has created a dilemma for district officials trying to track down missing students.
The district is opening up several points of contact with families of the students who have gone missing over the past year to determine whether they’re receiving instruction through other means, Gherardi said. If the family is homeschooling, they are asked to complete the state’s optional registration paperwork.
“The goal in this process is to reach every single CPS family,” Gherardi said.
But Butler said she hasn’t heard of the district getting in touch with any of the parents she sees regularly through her program.
Homeschooling advocates, on the other hand, consider Illinois’ policy a win. Fields-Smith said when families aren’t required to register their homeschooling status, a hybrid option becomes possible: students can attend classes at local public schools part-time, allowing parents to shape their homeschool instruction according to their own comfort levels. School districts are also able to retain some funding for those students. Others, such as Ray, say the policy is consistent with the philosophy that underpins homeschooling.
“If a child’s not in public school, he’s ‘missing’ — huh?” Ray said. “That comes from the presupposition that the state school system has to know what every child is doing. There’s nothing in the law like that.”
But for the district, the policy is a logistical headache. Without a way to track exactly how many students left public schools to learn at home, Chicago may be spending resources and time trying to find students who are not lost.
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.