February 11, 2003

Teach for America Founder Speaks

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Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp spoke to a crowded auditorium yesterday in Barnes Hall, reflecting on the successes of her program and outlining her hopes for its future.

“Teach for America exists to address the gap in educational outcomes that persist in low income and high income communities,” Kopp said. “Where you are born in our country today still determines, in good part, your educational prospects and, in turn, your life prospects.”

Teach for America recruits graduating college students for a two-year period of service teaching in underprivileged neighborhoods. During its 13 year history Teach for America has recruited approximately 9,000 members to work to help students from low income neighborhoods realize an equal educational opportunity.

Kopp’s vision for the program first began to materialize during her undergraduate years at Princeton University, where she became aware of a deep educational gap between students from wealthy communities and those from communities with fewer resources.

“I arrived [at Princeton] having grown up in public schools but in a pretty privileged community. For the first time I realized how differently prepared people were, even in Princeton, to do well there.” Kopp said.

Kopp then began to develop her idea of a national teacher corps, in which recent college graduates would supplement the teaching skills of established staff in needy school districts.

“The more I thought about this idea, the more obsessed by it I became,” Kopp said. “You can recruit all these people who have so much energy, so much commitment and who are working around the clock on wall street, [who could instead be] working around the clock helping kids.”

Kopp recounted the challenges she faced in creating a real, sustainable program from her original plan. School districts initially doubted her ability to recruit talented students as educators.

“At that time the media was calling our generation the ‘me’ generation,” Kopp said. “They were saying we … just wanted to go out and make a lot of money. That wasn’t resonating with me, and I felt like I was surrounded by people who were searching for a way to do something different.”

Kopp also emphasized the steep learning curve that she encountered in managing the program. The logistics of organizing and financing her dream proved challenging, yet Teach For America eventually surmounted such obstacles and Kopp retained her enthusiasm for the project.

“We are still working probably with greater urgency today than we ever have before in the last 13 years,” she said.

A full crowd of students gathered to hear Kopp’s speech, many of whom shared her passion for the program.

Enrique Garcia ’03, a campaign coordinator and future participant said, “I think it shows that there’s a lot of students who are not only interested in themselves but also interested in bettering the life opportunities of other people.”

With regard to Kopp’s presentation, Shannon Prichard ’03, who will begin with Teach for America next year, said, “I like her overall vision, everyone has to believe in the end product and not just little marginal steps to make a difference. To use students from college, who are totally motivated, and to [have them] go into low income under-resourced schools and be exposed to things that most people in higher education are not aware of is amazing.”

In addition to the lecture, Kopp participated in a student luncheon in the Straight earlier in the day in which she met a number of student leaders. The lecture was followed by a reception in Sage Hall, where Kopp was available to sign her new book, entitled One Day, All Children…

Organizers estimated that over the course of the current school year, Teach for America has received 500 contact cards from Cornell students interested in joining the program. Cornell is among the top ten schools providing Teach for America with recruits.

Archived article by Jeff Sickelco