Just like us: Utevia Tolbert’s story

Leading her childhood with the idea that “education is the key to success,” Utevia Tolbert has always found her home in the school building. Born and raised in Atlanta, Tolbert now works as Associate Principal of Operations at Cedar Shoals High School and hopes to spread her philosophy throughout Clarke County.

As Associate Principal of Operations, Tolbert works alongside Assistant Principal Fabian Jones to plan for safety issues as well as athletics. She leads and helps supervise the English and special education departments.  

“It gets challenging sometimes because part of my responsibility is to keep our students safe and to make sure teachers are doing what they’re supposed to do,” Tolbert said. “Sometimes that can get a little grimy simply because if I’m the one that everyone sees all the time (who) is holding people accountable, that can rub them the wrong way.”

Growing up in downtown Atlanta, Tolbert’s single mother had struggles of her own, but her mother made sure Tolbert went to the best middle school before attending Grady High School. She recalls being an engaged student, participating in clubs and sports including DARE club, Beta Club, basketball and cheerleading. On top of her busy extracurricular schedule, she helped out when needed at home due to her mother’s absence.   

“I was definitely more mature. My mom was on drugs probably much of my middle school and some of my high school years, so I had to work and babysit (younger relatives),” Tolbert said.

Even though she was considered an “at risk” student as a result of these environmental factors, Tolbert does not believe that she was in a harmful environment.

“Those are stereotypes that people place on students that grow up in what we call ‘the projects’ or ‘the hood’ or anything like that, which I definitely did,” Tolbert said. “I feel like I came from a neighborhood where people loved me.”

Tolbert did not allow these stereotypes to restrict her. Rather, she used them to her own advantage. She took every opportunity she could, working even harder towards her goals. 

“It was a motivation, and it never served as a barrier for me. I took advantage of opportunities and resources that were provided to us because people considered us ‘at risk,’ which allowed me to get the Pell Grant and the Hope Scholarship when I got to college,” Tolbert said.

Final Grad: Tolbert poses in her graduation cap and gown for her portrait photos before her college graduation at UGA. Wanting to set an example, Tolbert advanced her education not only for herself but also for those around her. “I recently finished my doctorate degree at UGA, which was one of my major milestones. It was something that I wanted to do for me. I’ve set the example for my girls and I’m the first person on both sides of my immediate family to receive my degrees. It’s been a good thing,” Tolbert said. Photo courtesy of Utevia Tolbert.

Tolbert planned to become an undercover cop, inspired by growing up in a “poverty stricken, drug infested neighborhood,” but she also realized that the people in her neighborhood offered her a foundation, looking out for their youth.

“If they (my neighbors) recognized the gift that you had, they would try to push you to do well,” Tolbert said. “My next door neighbor was basically like a built-in babysitter most of the time. People would be shocked to know but many of the drug dealers in the neighborhood were protective of the youth. Overall, most of the people in my neighborhood were just a huge family.”

Tolbert knows what it feels like to have to advocate for oneself and wants students to know they have help along the way. 

“I feel like my counselors didn’t encourage me enough to go to college or help me decide what I could do after high school, so I try to do that with my students now,” Tolbert said.

Going into her junior year at the University of West Georgia, Tolbert changed her mind about her career. Getting pregnant with her daughter Dalace made her rethink it all. 

“My daughter has actually shifted my entire life, because now I had someone depending directly on me,” Tolbert said.

Having a kid shifted her priorities and ideas. As a single mother, Tolbert was determined to graduate college — both for herself but also to send the best message to her daughter. 

“I wanted to be an undercover officer and that was based on how I grew up,” Tolbert said. “Now that I had a kid, I didn’t want her to be afraid that her mom wasn’t going to come home.” 

After graduating from UWG with a bachelor’s degree in arts and history and a minor in criminal justice, Tolbert took a job as a teacher in the special education department at Hilsman Middle School, specializing in work with students with emotional and behavioral disorders. She moved to Athens because her daughter’s father lived there.

“I considered it a blessing because then I got into other schools and started working toward my educational degrees. It was a matter of time until I fell in love with the community, the students and just the feel of Athens,” Tolbert said.

During her 21 years in education, working various jobs in Clarke County and attending Piedmont College, Cambridge College, Paine College and UGA to receive her master’s, leadership certification, specialist degree and her doctorate in education Tolbert found inspiration from her coworkers and past teachers. 

“Once I made the decision to be a teacher, I decided I wanted to be like Mr. Feldman, my high school history teacher. He taught me a lot about Black history and what that meant, who I was, and what impact it would have on who I was becoming,” Tolbert said. “As I got older and started working in the field of education, Ingrid Gilbert, who was my first principal at Hilsman, helped to serve as a mentor for me and still does. She loved the kids, she loved the adults. She did whatever she could to create a healthy environment where she was firm, fair and consistent and I often strive to be that same way.”

Tolbert’s interest in education came from issues like funding cuts, the need for teacher diversity and the lack of care toward students with special needs. 

“I actually want to open up a facility that only caters to kids with autism or students with some behavior issues that don’t necessarily get a chance to engage in other things because of their disability. I want to be that person to help them feel as important as they are.”

Moving forward in her career, Tolbert found herself at the doors of Cedar Shoals. As she worked as the interim principal at the Clarke County School District Learning Center, she was offered a position in CSHS’ administration last summer. 

“I didn’t hesitate to take the job, I had visited a year prior and knew all the stuff that happened in our district in general,” Tolbert said. “You’re asking me to go into a building with students that I love in a community that I love. Of course I would accept the job.” 

As Tolbert becomes more comfortable in the CSHS environment, she hopes to change the perspective the Athens community has about Cedar Shoals. 

“Everybody thinks that Cedar is just bad and it’s the worst place to be, but it’s never been like that. We definitely have our challenges, but every school does. We are doing some of the most amazing things but the only thing people can see are the negative things and that drives me insane,” Tolbert said. “We have so many amazing things happening in our building that do not get communicated as often as when negative things happen.”  

Luz Bazarte

Luz Bazarte De La Luz was a former staff writer for Cedar BluePrints.

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