by Richard Alblas
She is one of the few black Spanish teachers in the area, has a doctorate in Higher Education Leadership and, since March 2016, 28-year-old Tamara Wilkerson-Dias has been Executive Director of the African American Teaching Fellows (AATF), a nonprofit that aims to bring much-needed diversity into the teacher population in Charlottesville and Albemarle County.
“We need role models in front of our classrooms that represent the student population in Charlottesville and Albemarle County,” Wilkerson-Dias said. “Currently, that’s not the case. We have over 30 percent of African American students in our schools, but less than ten percent of African American teachers. We aim to close that gap.”
Data shows that in Charlottesville and Albemarle County, there are ten students for every teacher. Only one out of ten teachers is African American. And for every 122 students, there is only one African American teacher. The AATF states that African American students are three times more likely to drop out of school than their white peers, because of the absence of a diverse teaching staff. Those students lack mentors and role models who share their sociological and cultural roots and who can address the needs of a diverse student population.
That’s the problem the AATF tries to combat by supporting college students who plan to enter the education workforce after graduating.
“We offer tuition support, professional development resources and the chance to network in the community,” Wilkerson-Dias said. “When they start their first year of teaching, we keep supporting them and offer resources. The goal is to keep those teachers teaching.”
Wilkerson-Dias herself was the recipient of a 1-year fellowship from the AATF, when she was in her fourth year at University of Virginia.
“I had never heard of the program and wasn’t aware of the opportunities. It helped me enormously in getting my education career started,” the Richmond native said.
In the past 15 years, a total of 45 people have entered the program. Of them, 18 still teach in Charlottesville or Albemarle County and a total of 28 are still in front of a classroom. The AATF funds its efforts with individual donations and community grants.
All applicants who complete a fellowship are obligated to teach in Charlottesville or Albemarle County for the number of years equal to the duration of their fellowship with the AATF.
“That’s indeed the obligation,” Wilkerson-Dias said. “Luckily, most teachers exceed that, as did I. After my one year fellowship I briefly taught in Chesterfield County. After that, I taught Spanish for three years locally, at Jack Jouett Middle School and at Buford Middle School.”
Shortly after that, Wilkerson-Dias applied for the vacant position of Executive Director at AATF, got the job and becam the youngest director in the program’s 15-year history. For the next 5 years, Wilkerson-Dias has ambitious plans to change the make-up of the current teacher population.
“The goal is to have at least two fellows coming from the AATF working at each school in Charlottesville and Albemarle County,” she said. “That’s very ambitious, but I believe we can do it and create more diversity in our teaching staff. We will start by putting more effort into recruiting and making more connections with educational institutions.”
Currently, the AATF’s fellows come from UVa, Longwood University in Farmville and James Madison University in Harrisonburg, to name a few.
Wilkerson-Dias hopes one day that the numbers paint a more equal picture.
“It would be great to have over thirty percent of African American teachers in Charlottesville and Albemarle County. It’s so important to have that diversity and offer students that learning experience,” the Executive Director said. “If I’m out of a job because of that, that would be a good thing.”