Friday Feature: Black Homeschoolers of Birmingham

  • December 8, 2023
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Colleen Hroncich

“I was a homeschool mom, you know, just trying to make community for my kids.” This sums up what motivated Yalonda Chandler to start what eventually became Black Homeschoolers of Birmingham. Yalonda has what she calls two sets of kids: an older son and daughter who are 22 and 23, and a younger son and daughter who are 11 and 13. Both sets are eighteen months apart, so she says, “I was crazy twice.”

Yalonda first started homeschooling when her oldest son was entering sixth grade. She was a middle school classroom teacher at the time and could tell her son wasn’t academically or socially ready for sixth grade. “His light bulb didn’t really come on until mid‐​year,” she says. Since she was home with a newborn and toddler, she decided to try something different that year and keep him home.

For math, she got a workbook and used Khan Academy videos to teach the various concepts. But as an English teacher, she was able to get really creative to get him engaged. She says he was a reluctant reader, but that was when the Percy Jackson movie first came out. She told him they could watch the movie first but then he had to read the book. She created a whole curriculum around Percy Jackson—tied in math, mythology, and all sorts of things because he was so interested in it.

“That lasted us for a year,” she recalls. “And then I brought my daughter home in the second year of homeschooling. I knew just enough then to make us miserable, because I thought, ‘oh, I’ve got two now, so maybe I need to switch things up and do something different.’ I tried to replicate my classroom and that just didn’t work. I made us miserable for about six months or so, and then the kids were like ‘Mom, this isn’t working.’ And I said, ‘I was waiting for you to say it because it wasn’t working for me either.’ And then we just kind of switched gears again.”

Yalonda says they homeschooled until her older daughter was in eleventh and her older son was in tenth grade. They had moved to Alabama from Virginia and were struggling to find a new homeschool community. In Alabama, you have to homeschool through a church or private cover school or with a tutor. Yalonda tried joining a church school, but it was 40 minutes away and got to be too much. Midway through the year, they switched to the local public school. Yalonda says her kids “stuck out like a sore thumb” because they were more knowledgeable and respectful than the other kids and more comfortable talking to adults and participating in class.

During this time, Yalonda says she started a business that was starting to take off so she enrolled her younger kids in school. “I felt that tug of wanting to homeschool, but I was so into the business and was really enjoying it, to be honest with you. My youngest son had a wonderful kindergarten experience. He is considered twice exceptional—he is on the spectrum and identified as gifted as well. So when we first started kindergarten, we had conversations with the principal about what we were hoping his education would look like,” she says.

The school made some concessions to keep him from being bored. But in first grade, everything went downhill. His teacher was about to retire after thirty years. Not only did she not offer Yalonda’s son enrichment, but she was actually mean to him. After several problems, things got so bad that Yalonda pulled him and her daughter who was in second grade from the school and started homeschooling them.

They made it through the first year on their own, but Yalonda knew they needed more. “I was just like I’ve got these extroverted kids and they’re going to drive me crazy together home by themselves. They’re such different personalities from my older two, who are kind of laid back. They needed friends, but they were OK with being home that first year that we moved. So I needed my kids to have friends where we can get out of the house and meet other homeschoolers.”

Yalonda knew there were other homeschoolers around, so she posted on a local Facebook group trying to organize a meetup. Coordinating schedules was tricky, so she just said that she would be at the park at a certain time with cupcakes. Seven families showed up and had a great time. She created a messenger thread and labeled it “Birmingham area homeschool moms” to keep track of it. Within a couple of months, they had 50 or 60 people on the thread because moms started inviting their friends who were homeschooling or thinking about homeschooling. In 2019, Yalonda created a Facebook group, which she says “spread like wildfire.”

After COVID-19 disrupted education, Yalonda’s group began to focus more on specifically serving black and brown families and thus became “Black Homeschoolers of Birmingham.” According to their website, “Our focus and purpose has now evolved to be a “landing pad” that centers the educational development of Black and Brown homeschoolers.”

In 2021, Yalonda decided to host an informational summit that almost no one attended. “At that point, we really didn’t know what we were doing,” she admits. “At the end of 2021, there was a reporter who was doing a story on homeschooling. I reached out to her and said I’d love to chat about it, and she asked if I had any friends. And I was like, I’ve got this whole group of moms who would love to talk to you about it. The story was picked up nationally by NPR.” The group exploded after that and even got connected with VELA Education Fund just in time for them to apply for a grant, which they received.

They decided to try another Homeschool Summit. Yalonda says everything that could go wrong did go wrong—including the Wi‐​Fi and air conditioning both going out. In Alabama. In August. But people were raving about the event. “We were in this hot church and people were fanning themselves. And nobody left,” she recalls. “Everyone was talking about how great it was. And I thought, were we not in the same room together? But something amazing was happening. We went from like 60 members to almost 200 in two months.”

That was around the same time that many parents were deciding whether to send their kids back to schools after the pandemic. “Black families did not return to the classroom the way that they were expected to,” says Yalonda. “Every day the phone was just ringing nonstop with families who were asking ‘What do we do? Where do we go? What is this homeschooling? I want to try it, but I don’t know how to do it.’’ Yalonda started a consulting business where she provides homeschool coaching and a church cover school called Legacy Builders Academy.

Black Homeschoolers of Birmingham doesn’t offer homeschool classes or academic support, but those are available through Legacy Builders Academy, which is becoming a microschool. BHOB has “a standard set calendar and we do a field trip once a month,” says Yalonda. “We have a teen volunteer event every month and a teen hang out every month. Our biggest attendance events are our park days. Depending on what’s going on in our community, we also have community‐​sponsored events.”

Yalonda’s advice to other moms is to build the community that they want. “It doesn’t have to be something super formal,” she says. “I don’t like saying ‘just,’ but I was ‘just’ a homeschool mom. I never envisioned being executive director of a nonprofit and owning a microschool. I just wanted community for my kids. So if you don’t have it in your community, don’t be afraid to build what you need. I always tell my kids that Black Homeschoolers of Birmingham was created for them. I don’t do it for everyone else. I started with the mission of getting them community, and it’s just a plus that everyone else is benefitting.”