By Brad Kutner, Richmond Magazine
Monday, Oct. 2, 2017
It’s a balmy August day, just a few weeks shy of the first day of school for public school students across the state.
Andrew Daire, dean of Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Education, is hosting a welcoming party for new undergraduate students and future educators, and he taps the microphone to grab their attention.
“There are a number of challenges that exist in high-needs schools and communities and families,” he says, noticeably warm even in the shade in the courtyard near VCU’s education building, Oliver Hall, but cheery nonetheless. “And these challenges are not going to be met with average effort or average thinking.”
Those challenges are many, and, in some cases, are rooted in an issue Virginia continues to face more than 50 years after schools were integrated.
A study of the 2014-15 school year by the Virginia Department of Education shows 48.7 percent of students are part of a racial minority while only 16.6 percent of educators are similar racial minorities — making Virginia one of two Southern states that have fewer minority teachers than the national average of 18 percent, according to a July 2016 VDOE report.
"Not only is it important to have teachers that look like [the student body], when we increase the diversity within teaching, we’re adding different dimensions of thinking and function that raises all of what we’re doing.”
And by 2040, demographers at Weldon Cooper Center project the entire state will be a minority-majority, with 53 percent of the population identifying as nonwhite.
VCU’s Daire points to the education students before him, almost all of whom are white and female, and acknowledges from the standpoint of race and gender, there is a problem.
“Not only is it important to have teachers that look like [the student body], when we increase the diversity within teaching, we’re adding different dimensions of thinking and function that raises all of what we’re doing,” he says.
To that effect, Daire, along with other educators and administrators from across the state, have united under a new initiative, the Virginia Teacher Diversity Task Force, hoping to increase the classroom representation of minority teachers, specifically black men.
Dr. Maurice Carter, an adjunct professor of education at Longwood University, has been working to improve that representation for more than a decade.
“That disproportionate [ratio] doesn’t help Virginia. Our schools should look like our community,” Carter says from his home outside Charlottesville.
Carter initiated the Longwood chapter of the Call Me MISTER program about 10 years ago, hoping to tackle the issue of poor minority representation in the teacher workforce.
Carter is all too familiar with poor minority representation in schools. Growing up in Fluvanna County, he says black male teachers were a foreign concept when he was a student.
“They were custodians or working in the cafeteria,” he says. “And that makes a difference with image and self-image.”
Carter’s background in administrative programs at public primary and secondary schools paved his path to teaching education at the college level. The creation of Longwood’s Call Me MISTER program started with his desire to address those issues. The effort got off the ground with help from a $300,000 grant from Dupont.
Call Me MISTER aims to catch kids while they are still in high school. Teachers, school counselors or administration members from across the state who notice underperforming youth fitting the program’s criteria refer them to Carter.
Young men are brought to Longwood for a Summer Institute, which gives them the chance to live in the dorms, learn study skills and meet other highly motivated individuals. They also hear speeches and interact with successful men of color who can be looked upon as role models.
Among those students in the early days of the program was Dwayne Morris. A Call Me MISTER alum and 2008 graduate of St. Paul’s College, Morris took a job this school year with Henrico Public Schools where he’ll take over a second-grade classroom.
He looked back fondly on the program which helped give him support through his college years by offering mentors and other support systems.
“[Call Me MISTER] helped us find out who we were and why we wanted to be educators,” he says.
Morris says he still uses the principles of the Call Me MISTER program, even though he works with elementary schoolchildren. “If you get them while they’re young, they have that experience to build from,” he says, noting he tries to be a role model.
“Being a black male, it gives them someone they can look at and say, ‘they look just like me,’ ” he says, indicating students who come from one-parent homes or experience trauma are in need of that kind of support.