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Kopp discusses beginning of TFA

Amanda Michaels | Thursday, November 13, 2003

Princeton senior Wendy Kopp had a dream – to end the inequity of education in America. With the goal of 500 corps members and a budget of $2.5 million in mind, she set out to change the face of America. Fourteen years, 10,000 program alumni and $30 million later, she has.

Hailed in 1994 as one of Time magazine’s ’40 Most Promising Leaders Under 40,’ Kopp is the founder and president of Teach for America, a nonprofit organization that currently places 3,000 of the country’s most exceptional college graduates as teachers in low-income school districts in 20 different locations.

She is chairman of the New Teacher Project, a consulting group that advises school districts how to recruit top teachers, and she is the youngest person and only female ever to receive Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson award – the highest honor conferred upon undergraduate students.

Kopp spoke Wednesday at an event sponsored by the Society of Women Engineers and the Children’s Defense Fund about her journey with TFA, its successes and failures and the state of education in America today.

“When I went to Princeton, I realized something that had always been hidden from me before,” said Kopp. “That was the fact that where you’re born, even in this country that claims to be the land of opportunity, does so much to determine your educational prospects, and so your life prospects as well.”

She came up with the idea for TFA while searching for a career path to take beyond the corporate life. Ironically, TFA’s two-year teaching program is based on the same strategies used by corporate America to recruit liberal arts majors into the business world.

From conception to inception, TFA took on a life of its own. Hundreds of college seniors from elite schools were interested in a program deemed too altruistic for the “Me Generation” by institutions that Kopp had solicited for funds in the early days of TFA.

Mobil Corporation provided her with a seed grant of $26,000, and after 11 letters, Ross Perot finally agreed to put up a challenge grant of $500,000.

“I was blessed with absolute naivete and inexperience,” said Kopp. “I believed that if we could show them that college students were interested in the program, everything would fall into place. If I had started this campaign knowing what I know now, Teach for America might not be here today.”

Kopp said the components of the organization’s five-year plan are to grow to 4,000 corps members, to do more to insure that corps members have the greatest impact possible and to keep alumni connected.

“We are focused on staying the course, and so far, we’re on track,” said Kopp.

However, she did address the recent stumbling block placed in front of TFA. On July 11, Kopp received a letter stating that TFA was no longer an AmeriCorps program, meaning a loss of 5 percent of their operating budget, the loss of $15 million in educational grants and an elimination of guaranteed loan deferment used as incentives to recruit top college graduates.

“It definitely has been a challenging few months, but we were really able to weather it,” said Kopp. “We’re still trying to find federal and private funding to replace our loss, but we think we’ll be able to defer loans, pay interest and get our teachers the money we promised them.”

Kopp described the problems afflicting America’s school system, especially the gap in performance that runs along socioeconomic lines. Students born in low-income communities are as far as three to four grade levels behind by the time they finish elementary school and are seven times less likely to graduate from college, she said.

“Ultimately, more teachers going above and beyond is not going to be sufficient. We need to solve this problem as a country. We need to improve the economy and quality of life in these urban and rural areas, and improve the school system. This is going to take informed, committed leadership, and that’s what we hope we’re developing at Teach for America,” said Kopp.

Out of the 16,000 applicants for positions in TFA last year, only 1,800 were selected. Kopp said that they look for someone with the leadership skills to take on a monumental task and to deal with the problems the corps members find themselves up against every day.

Before TFA campus representative Erica Burroughs concluded the event, Kopp posed a challenge to the students in attendance.

“We can get there, we can get to the point where kids have equal education, no matter where they’re from,” she said. “The question is whether the leaders, the young, well-educated, committed leaders, will step up and take charge.”