JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — It’s just after lunch in the biology class of Antonio Bellamy, as he guides his students through the web of life.
“Can someone raise their hand and tell me what is that process called?” he asked the class. “Photosynthesis. That is correct.”
What sets him apart isn’t just that he’s the Teacher of the Year at First Coast High School in Jacksonville. It’s the simple fact that he is teaching at all. Black men, like Bellamy, are not common in the teaching profession.
“Our young men, especially our young men of color, need to see those role models in their schools who look like them,” said Rachael Tutwiler Fortune, president of the Jacksonville Public Education Fund.
She said seeing diverse male teachers at the head of the class remains a rarity in public schools.
“It is a nationwide challenge,” Tutwiler Fortune said.
Across the country, there is a wide gap between America’s increasingly diverse student body and the people teaching it.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, 80% of teachers in public schools are white, and 75% of them are women.
The nation’s public school students look very different. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, by 2024, the number of white students in public schools is projected to be 46%. That's down from 51% in 2012.
Meanwhile, Hispanic students will grow to 29% of all public school students. Black students are expected to make up 15% of the overall student body, while Asian and Pacific Islanders are projected to be 6%.
While the student body diversified, the teacher workforce didn’t. Studies show that can impact some students’ education. In Duval County, Florida. where Jacksonville is located, 60% of the student body comes from a non-white background. However, only 6% of the teachers are Black and only 3% are Hispanic.
That is why the Jacksonville Public Education Fund is undertaking an ambitious plan to attract diverse male teachers, like Dimas Vidales, who teaches social studies at Alfred I. duPont Middle School in Jacksonville.
“I could not relate to the teachers in front of me,” Vidales said, of going to school in a community near Miami. “They didn't understand what I was going through. I grew up in a migrant community. My parents were migrant farmworkers.”
To bring in many more teachers like him to Duval County Public Schools, the “1,000 by 2025 Initiative" is seeking to hire 1,000 diverse male teachers within the next three years. Part of the plan involves recruiting them in college – and even in high school -- to put them on a path to the teaching profession.
“When we think about our black and brown male students, many of whom are from low-income backgrounds in our community, it's especially important that they learn from diverse teachers,” Tutwiler Fortune said. “We've seen through the research that it has an impact on the probability that they'll graduate from high school and then go on to college.”
That is something Vidales understands first-hand.
“If this is just a stepping-stone, we are on the right track,” he said. “There's students out there that need a little bit more help. I was one of those students. It took one teacher to take me to his wing in high school, that he said, ‘Look, I see great things in you.’”
It’s a scenario they hope can be replicated in classrooms all over.