Wendy Kopp's Mission: Ensure Educational Opportunity for All Students
Wendy Kopp's Mission: Ensure Educational Opportunity for All Students

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At Teach for America's New York City headquarters, it doesn't take very long for the visitor to pick up on the sense of dedication and optimism among the 400-plus staff members who work there. Since 1990, the group has recruited and trained nearly 25,000 college graduates to teach in low-income schools throughout the United States.

Their energy may be drawn, in part, from Wendy Kopp, the non-profit organization's founder and guiding light. "We believe that education is the great enabler [and that] it's the foundation for life opportunity," says Kopp, who brings a sense of tireless urgency and focus to Teach for America's mission.

"From my vantage point, we're working to enable our country to live up to its ideals… of ensuring that all of our kids have the chance at the American Dream."

Privileged beginnings and wakeup calls

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Born in 1965, and raised in a comfortable white middle class neighborhood in Dallas, Texas, Kopp herself had ample opportunity to realize the American Dream. She excelled in school and knew few young people who didn't have her advantages. In 1985, Kopp entered prestigious Princeton University, where she became a public policy major. She was assigned a dormitory room with a bright young woman who grew up in the South Bronx, one of New York's poorest and most disadvantaged school districts. She was moved by how hard her roommate had to work to keep up with her more privileged peers.

"Getting to know her was my first window into the fact that our country really doesn't provide all of its kids with an excellent education," Kopp recalls. That experience led her to learn more about the issue and be increasingly concerned about it.   
Still, Kopp was unsure what her personal career path would be. A wakeup call occurred in the course of a summer job in Saint Louis, Missouri, just before her senior year at Princeton.

She was in the posh high-rise office of a businessman philanthropist, trying to sell him advertising space in a student magazine. Kopp says the man swiveled in his chair, pointed out the window in the direction of the city's sizable black ghetto, and told her he would not support her magazine because he could have more impact helping poor inner city kids with few or no educational opportunities.

"It led to a crisis of conscience in my mind," says Kopp, who felt a deep yearning for a 'higher calling.' "And, at the same time, I felt like our generation was searching for… a way to make a real difference in the world."

The cultural myth was that her peers, whom the media had labeled 'the Me Generation,' cared only about money. Kopp thought the label was inaccurate. "It wasn't that that was what we wanted. It was that [corporations] were the only [job] recruiters! So that was the initial inspiration for Teach for America."

Teach for America: from vision to reality

For her senior thesis, Kopp wrote a detailed plan for an organization that would recruit the most talented young leaders among graduating college students and young professionals from many disciplines. It would train them to serve in America's most underserved schools, not only as teachers, but as the foot soldiers in a new national movement to ensure that every American child had access to an excellent education.

When Kopp graduated, she turned that thesis into a successful funding proposal, and the next year, 1990, she was in an auditorium welcoming the 489 young people who comprised the first crop of Teach for America recruits.

In her 2001 book, One Day All Children: the Unlikely Triumph of Teach for America and What I Learned Along the Way, she recounts that the journey since then has been both bumpy and gratifying.

Last year the organization had 35,000 applicants, 7300 of whom are currently serving in the field. The admissions process is extensive. "We are looking for people who persevere in the face of challenges, who can influence and motivate others, who are strong problem solvers, and who are deeply committed to this mission."

Personal and social transformations

Teach for America corps members often experience a transformation when they realize that no matter how smart and ambitious they are, they must make their work about the pupils' success, not their own. That's why, according to Kopp, all corps members must combine honesty and hard work with concrete goals.

She recalls one corps member who had been assigned to teach a 7th grade class in an impoverished school in rural Louisiana. When she learned that most students were doing math only at the 4th grade level, she immediately set up an individual meeting for every one of her 120 students and their parents, and leveled with them. "'Clearly, you just have not been given the opportunity you deserve,'" Kopp quotes the young teacher as having said. "'But if you work with me, you'll make three years progress in a year's time, and that will fundamentally change your trajectory as a student and your potential thereafter.'"

Kopp reports the kids worked incredibly hard, coming to school early, leaving late and working on weekends. At the end of the year, the class had succeeded. "You want kids to be on a mission. And kids want to be on a mission!" Kopp says with evident glee.

Wendy Kopp's mission continues. Nearly two-thirds of Teach for America corps members continue in the education field after completing their two-year commitments. Over 400 TFA alumni are now school principals, and several are district superintendents. In fact, Washington DC School Chancellor Michelle Rhee is a Teach for American veteran. Kopp predicts that by the year 2015, there will be 50,000 alumni.

An offshoot organization, called "Teach for All," is already working to introduce the Teach for America model in India, Australia and in countries across Latin America and Europe.