'She advocates for us': Social entrepreneur builds homeschooling network for Detroit families

With the onset of the novel coronavirus, many parents found themselves in uncharted territory serving as full-time teachers for their children. To help Detroit families find balance between their work and home life as well as their children’s educational needs amid the pandemic, longtime educational advocate Bernita Bradley created a homeschool network for parents and children to feel secure with at-home learning.

Bradley, owner and founder of The Village PCL and Engaged Detroit Homeschooling Network, began working with community organizations to facilitate community engagement after noticing a communication gap between residents and the organizations. In 2013, Bradley created The Village as a way to support nonprofits, philanthropic organizations, and school partnerships. She saw a need to stop working for others and to do it herself. Longtime education advocate Bernita Bradley created a homeschool network to help parents during the pandemic.

“I was doing outreach for all these different organizations, connecting people to organizations and making sure the community had what they need and making sure the organizations have the right community members at the table when they design programs,” Bradley says.

Motivated by community and parents, the Detroit social entrepreneur set out on a mission to support the needs of the people. The Village PCL serves as a bridge bringing multiple entities together.

“My goal is driven by community. I’m not necessarily driven by the organizations. So, what the parent says they need or the student says they need, that’s what I go after,” Bradley says.

After the pandemic hit, she responded to parents' needs again by founding Engaged Detroit Homeschooling Network, which supports parents and children through the homeschooling process. With the assistance of coaches and parents, Bradley created an educational structure for 12 Detroit families serving children from all grade levels. Some parents were new to homeschooling while some were veterans looking for additional support and direction.

“We basically put a simple ask out on social media, [asking] who’s looking for support with homeschooling. Would you like to have a coach? And we just put a Google form out and people just started applying,” Bradley explains. “From there, we divided up whether people really were interested in homeschooling or if they were interested in support with virtual schooling, which is a difference.”

Empowering children to be self-learners

Interest in homeschooling has gone up since the pandemic hit in March and shut down schools. The Michigan Department of Education saw an increase in homeschool registrations for the 2020-21 school year, with the parents of more than 17,000 students telling their public school districts upon exiting this year that they were homeschooling their children. Chalkbeat reported in December that the number of registered home schools in Michigan more than doubled this fall, from 290 to 611, but that figure is likely an undercount because parents aren't required to let the state know they are homeschooling.

Engaged Detroit aims to be a long-term solution to a short-term problem. Not just looking to assist parents in virtual learning throughout the pandemic, the program's goal is to become a viable alternative to in-school learning beyond COVID-19. The network has partnered with multiple organizations such as Michigan State University, Detroit College Access Network (which will provide junior high and high school level students a coach), and Detroit Area Pre-College Engineering Program. Bradley says through the partnership with MSU, the university has provided space on the Detroit campus where the group meets twice a month. There’s also music classes and a robotics network.

Through the network, parents are able to connect with a cohort of parents and coaches.

“The benefits of being part of a homeschool network is that you have support," says coach HaDasha Green. "A homeschool community has parents new to homeschooling, veteran parents who have successfully homeschooled, and those that fall somewhere in the middle. No matter where we are on the spectrum we can all learn from each other, providing ideas, resources, and encouragement."

The network also provides supplies, such as providing desks and chairs, books, and more.

"In most homeschool networks the sole responsibility of the child’s education including materials usually falls on the parent," she says, adding, "which is why being a part of the Engaged Detroit Homeschool Network has been a great opportunity.”

Originally starting with eight families, Bradley increased the number of participants to 12 after an additional callout on social media a few weeks later.

One of those parents was Jessica Maddox, a Detroit resident from the east side and mother of six children ages 2, 5, 8, 11, 14, and 15. She tried homeschooling in the past but didn't know where to start. Through the network, she says she has received support and guidance and as a result gained confidence.Jessica Maddox is one of the parents in the homeschool network.

“My experience with the homeschooling network has been awesome. Ever since our first Zoom meeting, I’ve been loving Bernita and everyone else in the group,” says Maddox, who has a background of working in preschools and day care centers. “I love what she brings to the group; I love how she advocates for us. Every week, I look forward to the meetings.”

With joining the network, Maddox feels empowered to be able to provide each of her children personalized attention. As a part of the network, Maddox has been able to learn what each child needs and teach them in a way that complements their learning style.

“[The network] has been very beneficial for me as their mother to sit down with them one-one-one, learn their learning style and learn who they are as a person,” Maddox says.

The freedom to learn at their own pace has had a positive impact on her children and their self-esteem, Maddox says. "My daughter is more creative and hands-on and tells me how she wants to learn. I'm so happy because virtual school had her stressed and down and she wasn't doing so well. I learned that I can move at her pace and they learn so quickly so I don't have to worry about being behind."

To help execute and provide assistance to parents and students in the homeschooling network, three coaches joined the team. Green, a resident of Detroit’s Ravendale community and early childhood coach for the network, assists a total of five families through two one-hour sessions a week.

“The goal of coaching is to help parents find the best learning process for them and their child; empower their children to be self-learners by removing the constraints brought on by traditional learning environments,” Green says. “Our sessions are more like a community circle, a space to share, and learn from each other with no judgment.”

Actively pursuing a degree in early childhood education, Green draws on her own educational experience teaching her children. Before becoming a full-time stay-at-home mother, Green worked as an assistant teacher at preparatory early childhood learning center. Homeschooling her family has provided the blueprint for guiding other children through at-home learning.

“I am a mother of 4 and my children’s education has always been a priority for me. I believe that my role as mother prepared me for the role as a coach,” Green says. “I have successfully homeschooled my oldest children from age 2, until they started school at age 6. Their learning process taught me how to engage my children in learning based on their interest and learning styles.”

COVID-19 and beyond

While wanting to create a lesson plan that expands past standard grade-level curriculum, the pandemic has presented roadblocks and challenges. With restrictions on social gatherings, coaching sessions are held virtually, limiting the ability to provide hands-on assistance. The homeschool network aims to empower children to be self-learners.

“The biggest challenge has been doing everything virtually due to COVID-19. I would love to be able to spend this time face to face. Also helping families educate their children beyond the boundaries of a curriculum,” Green says.

Children participating in virtual learning due to the pandemic are facing several challenges, including the digital divide throughout the city. For Black and brown children, access to online services and computer software can be a barrier. According to a 2019 survey of the worst connected cities nationwide conducted by the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, Detroit accounted for almost 25% of the total houses in the state without any broadband services. Awarded a $25,000 grant, Bradley used the money to purchase equipment for parents to address this disparity.

When writing the grant, Bradley factored in what she was seeing during the pandemic in hopes of securing the necessary funds to help parents. “One of the things was each household would have some form of technology for the parent,” Bradley explains. “I could not afford, with the $25,000 dollars, to buy technology for each child, but at least that parent would have a laptop.”

After starting in September with plans to run until mid-February, Bradley says, "The hope is that our work proves the need for funders to fund a second cohort. This was driven by the past school years' lack of engagement and most parents have already expressed that education was terrible for their children before the pandemic. The pandemic only exacerbated the issues."

For more information on the program, email [email protected].

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Megan Kirk is a freelance writer from Detroit who enjoys all things Detroit. Currently studying journalism at Michigan State University, she has a passion for local news, political, and entertainment stories.