In the city of Richmond, Virginia, the turnover rate for teachers in K-12 public schools hovers close to 20 percent. By comparison, the average national turnover rate for teachers at public primary and secondary schools, according to the Richmond Times Dispatch, sits between 11 and 13 percent.
These daunting statistics aren’t discouraging Jim Ukrop ’60, L.H.D. ’99 and Barbara Ukrop ’61 from believing a change is possible.
The Ukrops promote education in the city by regularly attending teacher residency programs and university job fairs. Jim Ukrop has doggedly traveled across the state representing Richmond Public Schools to attract talented teachers to Richmond.
In 2003, the couple established the James E. and Barbara B. Ukrop Richmond City Public School Teacher Scholarship, which provides annual funding for students at the William & Mary School of Education pursuing a master’s degree in teaching. By accepting the scholarship, recipients agree to teach in Richmond Public Schools for two years.
In 2009, Matt Wester ’06, M.A.Ed. ’10, received the Ukrop scholarship. Upon graduation, Wester accepted a position teaching middle school science at Richmond’s Franklin Military Academy, the oldest public college preparatory military school in the nation. Each morning, Wester heads to the city’s Church Hill district and his physics and biology classroom in Franklin Military’s historic Onslow Minnis building.
“I decided to teach in Richmond because I wanted to invest and grow roots in this community and this city," he said. "When I’m here, I really give my all. I work every single week night, and I usually give about five hours on the weekends.”
Wester’s role at Franklin Military amounts to more than that of a teacher. He models dedication and patience to students as he helps them grasp course material. He has become a pseudo family member of groups of siblings he has taught.
“I have stayed at Franklin Military Academy first and foremost because I love working with the kids. I feel like it is meaningful work. It’s also challenging and interesting, and there are never any two days that are the same. I love the problem-solving piece of it,” said Wester.
“I’m the only biology and physics teacher in the building, so everyone comes through my classroom. It’s awesome to see students walk across the stage at graduation and know every single name. Getting to know the community is a huge benefit to teaching in Richmond Public Schools.”
Wester is dedicated not only to the community but also to lifelong learning. As an undergraduate studying biology at William & Mary, he worked late into the night on his undergraduate thesis. Between finishing his bachelor’s degree and returning to school for his master’s degree, he assisted William & Mary Chancellor Professor of Biology Margaret Saha in her research lab and enjoyed guiding the students who walked through its doors.
The Ukrop Scholarship played a critical role in ensuring that Wester used his talents to benefit students in the Richmond area.
“By tying me to Richmond, the scholarship helped me get my foot in the door when I started applying to jobs," Wester said. "It also helped me to stick with the city, that obligation to be here for two years instead of just one. My first year of teaching was hard; it was a steep learning curve. I might have walked away from Richmond after that first year if I hadn’t been obligated here. Committing to two years in Richmond helped me to persevere through some of those challenges that I faced my first year.”
The rewards of teaching and living in Richmond outweighed the challenges. After eight years teaching in Richmond Public Schools, he’s fully immersed in the community and its people.
“I’m starting to broaden my range of impact by working with the Richmond Teacher Residency program to train new teachers,” Wester said. “This year, I have my third resident coming through my classroom. It has been very rewarding to start passing on some of the gifts that mentors and cooperating teachers have given to me. This is my chance to give back, in a very indirect way, all the blessings that were given to me over the years.”
Wester is carrying the Ukrops’ tradition of excellence and dedication to a new generation of teachers through his work in the community and his role as a senior faculty member at Franklin Military.
“I would not be here if they had not established this scholarship,” Wester said. “I’m just thankful that I get the chance to make an impact on this building and make Franklin Military Academy everything that it can be.”