The House the Burgeses Built

One family's neighborhood-wide approach to home education.


When Louisiana residents Joyce and Eric Burges started educating their oldest son at home 15 years ago, the homeschooling movement was largely composed of white Christians. Within the black community, dropping out of public school was considered downright treasonous. "My husband and I were called 'Benedict Arnolds,'" Joyce Burges recalls. "People would tell us, 'You're pulling your children out of a system that we fought so hard to get into.'" But Burges wasn't very impressed with that system; Louisiana's public schools have long been known as some of the nation's worst. "This summer," Burges says, "my 21-year-old son is tutoring a 15-year-old boy who can't read. He's 15 and he can't read, so what is the system doing? How did they let this child get away?"

Five years ago, the Burgeses decided they wanted to share the expertise they had developed while homeschooling their own five children. In July 2000, they created the National Black Home Educators Resource Association, a nonprofit organization that provides advice on curriculum materials, pairs new families with veteran home educators, and produces an annual symposium. The Burgeses' goal is to encourage other African-American families to become more involved in their children's education. "We believe in helping parents become advocates for their children's education again," says Joyce Burges. "Even if a child is in a public school, the parent needs to come home and spend two to three hours doing homework with the child. I want to empower parents to do that."

In 2004 the Burgeses' two-day symposium, "Teach Me How to Teach My Child," drew 250 parents from around the country. Joyce Burges is determined to increase these numbers substantially during the next few years, and one helpful ally she has enlisted is Wal-Mart. In past years, local branches of the store have contributed merchandise for raffle prizes. This year, one of those branches provided a matching grant to help underwrite the cost of the event.

Enrollment at the informal learning academy known as the Burges family dining room has also hit an all-time high: Along with her two youngest daughters, Joyce Burges tutors 15 other children from the neighborhood. "Here's how it happens," she says. "I'll be sitting on my front porch while the children are playing out front, and one will come up to me and say, 'Hey, Miss Joyce, you teach your children at home, huh?' And I say, 'Yes, I do.' 'Oh, I wish my mom would teach me at home…I'm having problems reading.'"

"Now who wants to hear a pitiful story like that?" Burges says with good-natured self-deprecation, aware how well her story plays: Determined parents, frustrated by the way the public school system is failing to serve their children, are taking it upon themselves to create a better option.

Burges would like to move her operation out of her dining room and create a professional learning center, but a benefactor who could help her jump-start such a project has yet to sign on. Burges believes it's only a matter of time. "We've just now been around long enough for people to feel that we're credible," she explains. "I'm hanging around. I'm reaching out to the community, staying in their face. I have a bull's mentality where that's concerned. I'm just not going to give up, because what we're doing works."?