Group works to diversify teaching pool

By 7pm, the Social Hall of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church had swelled with folks in sport coats and sharp dresses. They mingled shoulder to shoulder, some looking at the artwork that hung from each of the four walls, others trying to squeeze by each other, moving from one conversation to the next. The bright, white room was filled with the din of conversation as the silent auction benefiting the African-American Teaching Fellows (AATF) program rolled into its second hour.

Abigail Amoako, a young woman in a white dress who is finishing her fifth year at UVA, navigated the ever-changing channels of the crowd, a tray of finger food balanced in her right hand. One of the eight current fellows of the program, she worked the crowd, smiling and offering hors d’oeuvres to patrons studying the mixed media installations hanging from the walls.

“What really got me thinking about teaching was the Boosters program [at UVA],” says Amoako, who student-teaches at Jackson-Via Elementary school. After volunteering at Walker Elementary as part of the Boosters program, Amoko says she felt a connection with the kids in the classroom. “You see it when they don’t understand something, but then they get it. They’re just so thankful.”

In Charlottesville schools, students of color make up almost half of the student population. According to the AATF website, only 15 percent of the teachers are African-American. The 3-year-old AATF program’s goal is to change that ratio, to bring in more African-American teachers to the Charlottesville and Albemarle school systems. It provides mentoring and financial support to fellows who commit to teach in one of the two systems. Enid Kreiger, AATF’s secretary, says that the application process is highly selective. “They have to capture us,” she says, smiling in the middle of the crowded room.

One of the fellows who captured the AATF board of directors is Deanna Mitchelson. A graduate of UVA, she is employed as a long-term substitute special education teacher at Charlottesville High School and is working toward a learning-disabled certification. “This is my second year in the program, and they’ve paid for my tuition, my books, anything else I needed just so they can promote the diversity in the school districts,” says Mitchelson, who played basketball at UVA. “I love the kids there. Once you see them walk across the stage in June, all of the rollercoaster rides you’ve gone through in terms of getting the assignments and academic work together is so worth it.”

Pam Moran, superintendent of Albemarle County schools, says that retaining younger teachers, particular African-American teachers, is challenging. “We find that when teachers come here from other places, particularly teachers of color, they get here and say, ‘Where do I find other people who look like me and have my interests?’” says Moran. “Oftentimes what they do is leave. We also know young teachers like to go back to the place where their families are to teach, regardless of color. So if we can find the kids here that want to teach, the likelihood is that they’re going to maintain their roots in Albemarle and Charlottesville.”

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