One by one, the attorneys representing 19 school districts in the landmark Leeper v. Arlington ISD case grilled homeschool parents in cross-examination. It looked like Texas homeschoolers would lose this case, and with it, their God-given right to educate their children at home.
Then, a young, African-American mother named Helen Jackson was called to testify. Probably hoping to demonstrate that some homeschooling parents were not qualified to teach their children, the school districts’ attorneys asked Helen about her educational background and work history. This was one witness they greatly underestimated.
“I was an aerospace electronics engineer for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration—and was accepted to be an astronaut candidate,” Helen replied.
Pens hit the floor and jaws dropped. None of them would have presumed that this humble homeschooling mother of five had been the first African-American woman selected to be an astronaut!
“When she said that, you could sense an explosion—a quiet explosion—in the courtroom. Nothing of any sound, but very, very quiet. I was watching the judge, and he was having trouble containing himself with laughter,” observed Shelby Sharpe, the lead attorney for the Leepers.
Helen’s testimony helped “crack” the Leeper case, which affirmed the right of Texas families to homeschool.
In the early 1980s, Texas homeschoolers faced prosecution, jail time, fines and losing their children to Child Protective Services. Then, in March 1985, Attorney Sharpe filed a lawsuit against the Texas Education Agency and 1,100 school districts. Helen and her husband John served as witnesses in this class action suit.
The case took nearly 10 years to litigate and ultimately culminated in a 9-0 decision at the Texas Supreme Court in favor of homeschooling. So, how did Helen arrive at such a pivotal moment in history for homeschoolers? Here’s her amazing story.
Helen Jackson’s Early Life
Helen Murray grew up in poverty. “I was one of those kids who slipped through the cracks somehow—because I did not have either of my parents, and I had a grandmother who was at work as a live-in maid most of the time,” she recalls.
Her grandmother, one of many guardians who passed her around, held an eighth-grade education. Despite these insurmountable odds, Helen excelled academically. Several Ivy League schools invited her to interview, but sadly, she lacked the resources to make the trips. Instead, Helen married at a young age. Later, with three children, she fled an abusive spouse.
Eventually, she finished college and landed an engineering job at NASA, where she met and married John Jackson, a NASA engineer.
The Decision to Homeschool
Helen’s oldest children faced many challenges, having been born into an abusive situation and poverty. Baqiyyah and Malik were struggling in school and Malik became extremely withdrawn.
In 1983, the family relocated to Texas. Although satisfied with her career at NASA, a tiny advertisement about homeschooling was about to change the Jacksons’ lives.
Convicted both by her new Christian faith and a strong commitment to academic excellence, Helen made a decision: “I am willing to give this career up because otherwise Malik is not going to make it.” She resigned from NASA and began homeschooling in fall 1983.
Not long after she started homeschooling, Helen got a call from NASA that took her breath away: “You’ve been selected!”
Years earlier, while working with space shuttle launch support, Helen applied for the astronaut program. She forgot about it during the years-long vetting process. But now the choice was in front of her: become the first African-American female astronaut and very possibly travel to outer space … or homeschool Baqiyyah, Malik, Isa and Zakiya.
“I wanted to choke, because this was the dream of a lifetime,” Helen recalls.
She applied her scientific mind to the problem and researched the mistakes and successes of other scientists. During her research, Helen learned that Albert Einstein neglected his family terribly and she knew she did not want that for her family.
Helen Jackson put her family first—before NASA. “I couldn’t have been comfortable with national fame while my kids were just down, doing terrible,” Helen says. She knew that her children would have regressed without the support they needed had she returned to NASA to complete the astronaut training.
“I can’t do it. I just can’t do it,” she concluded. Crestfallen, she hung up the phone. “There’s that opportunity of a lifetime. I just let it go. But I got to do what I feel that God is telling me to do.”
Pregnant with Johnny, her fifth and youngest child, Helen was content with the decision she made to commit to the academic success and spiritual well-being of her children … and she never looked back.
Reflections on Year 1 of Homeschooling
Both John and Helen sacrificed time, energy and reputation because of their decision to homeschool. They even went into isolation.
Helen was “condemned terribly” by her peers, especially when they found out she had forfeited her career to homeschool. “I did not have support—it was only from other homeschoolers that I had support,” she recalls.
When Helen began homeschooling, Malik was a sixth-grader performing at a third grade level. After just one year of homeschool, testing revealed that Malik was at 12th grade level! Not only was he soaring academically, but he became outspoken, vocal and happy. Once a fearful child, Malik began mingling with the neighborhood children. “He was a new person,” reflects Helen.
The entire family flourished in their new homeschool environment. Helen’s naturally gifted children skipped grades, took leadership roles in a number of the organizations they were involved in and began living in harmony with each other.
“It was a big sacrifice,” Helen comments, “but when you’re a parent, you give up whatever you got to give up for your children to succeed.” And succeed they did:
- Baqiyyah teaches at the West Virginia School of Medicine.
- Malik works in information technology and business management.
- Isa is a chemical engineer and owns a construction firm.
- Zakiya serves in leadership for a nonprofit organization.
- Johnny is a combat Marine veteran and economic consultant.
After some 17 years of homeschooling, and following the death of her husband in 2007, Helen returned to school to earn a master’s degree in physics, and eventually earned a Ph.D. from the Air Force Institute of Technology. Currently, she is a research physicist with the U.S. Air Force.
Looking back, does she regret giving up her career to homeschool? “No, no, no … I’m really happy that God blessed me with the opportunity to do it.”
It was one of the most difficult decisions a person could ever make; even to this day, people still criticize her choice. Yet her children are proof she made the right decision in putting family first.
Homeschoolers in Texas are forever grateful to Helen for helping change the course of history. It may not have been in space, but she had just as much impact here on Texas soil defending the rights of families to educate their children as they see fit. ■
Almost Aboard the Challenger
On January 28, 1986, Jackson and her children gathered around the television to watch the space shuttle Challenger take off. She recalls the emotion before the launch: “I was excited because I’m a big fan of the space program and of NASA.”
When the Challenger exploded, Jackson was horrified to think of all the lives and talent that were lost.
Days later it occurred to her that if she would have accepted NASA’s offer to become an astronaut, she might have been in the payload of the Challenger.
“Sometimes we don’t understand why God tells us to not do certain things or to do certain things. Sometimes we don’t find out in this lifetime. But I got a chance to see … You just got to obey God and trust even when you don’t understand.”
Taking a Stand in Texas: The Battle for Home School Freedom
Now on YouTube: This documentary depicts the hardships and struggles of Texas families in the early days of the homeschool movement.
Watch Attorney Shelby Sharpe, lead counsel in Leeper v. Arlington ISD, describe the emotional impact that Jackson’s testimony made on him, and how it was a pivotal moment in the landmark case that secured the right to homeschool in Texas.
This powerful segment starts at the one-hour mark.
THSC believes that homeschooling is the best educational model, and Dr. Jackson is surely proof-positive of that! Won’t you join us in empowering other parents to homeschool? Donate today!