September 13, 2006

Kopp Tackles Inequality

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It is easy to mistake Wendy Kopp for a typical corporate executive. She wears a low-key black suit and sensible brown flats and wasted no time on chitchat when she talked to The Sun yesterday.

Yet the 39-year-old woman who, as a senior in Princeton, decided to tackle inequalities in America’s education system is anything but ordinary.

Kopp is the founder and president of Teach For America, a national nonprofit organization that recruits college graduates as two-year teachers for low-income school districts, where students have traditionally lagged behind their peers.

She began to pursue her vision in 1989, enlisting about 490 college graduates just the first year. Today, Teach For America has about 16,000 current members and alumni and reaches over 350,000 students in 25 communities across the U.S.

Yesterday evening at the Willard Straight Hall Memorial Room, Kopp spoke about her ongoing mission to expand educational opportunities of children, her goals for Teach For America by the year 2010 and her growing sense of urgency that more action must be taken to solve the nation’s education woes.

In 1989, the year that Kopp graduated from Princeton, management consulting and investment banking jobs were the rage. Older people called Kopp and her peers the “mean generation,” a label stemming from the vast exodus of graduates to Wall Street.

Kopp, a public policy major, thought that public perception was wrong. It was not that her generation wanted to dive fast into lucrative corporate jobs, she thought; it was that as of yet, no major nonprofit alternative called upon students’ talents and energy the way top corporations did.

“That first experience out of college is so transformative,” Kopp said she remembers thinking. “What if we could get all those talented and driven people to have their first experience as teaching?”

She was convinced that students who taught for two years at an urban or rural low-income community would come away from their experience with new priorities and new insight that would guide their actions as leaders down the road.

Businesses liked her idea. In fact, Fortune magazine had ran a cover story about how corporate America wanted to fund educational initiatives. But the one objection potential supporters kept raising was that college students would never go for it.

They were wrong. In the first year alone, 2,500 graduates applied to become Teach For America corps members. Kopp launched the program with $2.5 million from corporate donations.

The first group of Teach For America members, Kopp recalled, struggled just to survive. With nearly no experience, the organization and the students were ill-equipped to deal with the harsh realities of classrooms — especially of economically-disadvantaged ones.

There were exceptions, however.

“Some number of those people figured out how not just to survive but how to actually change the academic trajectory of the kids they were teaching,” Kopp said.

Teach For America learned from these people — analyzing their leadership style in the classroom and their strategies for reaching kids — and passed on the knowledge to the next class of teachers.

Almost two decades later, the organization has accumulated plenty of success stories. Alumnus Chris Barbic started out teaching fifth graders in Houston, Texas and became so popular that parents petitioned the school board to let him start his own school. Today, Barbic’s high school, YES College Preparatory Schools, is one of the top 100 high schools in America, according to a May issue of Newsweek magazine.

Kopp has always envisioned Teach For America as an organization that feeds education-minded leaders into all sectors of society. About 60 percent of alumni stay in education, but many go on to law, government, business and other areas where they can have a significant influence on public policy, she said.

In its latest issue, BusinessWeek named Teach For America as one of the 50 best places to launch a career. The program was number 43, behind NASA and CapGemini.

Leaders are the backbone of the organization’s success. Because corps members only undergo five weeks of training as opposed to the years a regular teacher puts in, it is imperative that graduates demonstrate both talent and high leadership ability. Much of Teach For America’s aggressive recruiting is targeted towardstudents at the helm of campus organizations.

Still, a common criticism is that Teach For America cannot adequately prepare its members in just over a month. While the organization has many outstanding teachers, it also has a fair number of students who quit before their two years are up because of the intense demands placed upon them.

For her part, Kopp yesterday seemed the same passionate and driven social entrepreneur she had been when she started 17 years ago.

“We have to get bigger and we have to get better,” she told the audience. “We’re at the beginning of a five-year plan to grow. We’re working to become the top employer of college graduates,” she said.

By 2010, she said the organization hopes to reach 700,000 kids. This number would rival the nation’s second largest public school system, the Los Angeles Unified School District, which had around 730,000 students in 2005.

Kopp’s lecture was sponsored by The Cornell Commitment. Kirsten Gabriel, associate director, said the organization invited Kopp because she exemplified its focus on integrating service and leadership into professional roles.

“She’s talking a lot about giving future leaders a perspective,” Gabriel said.

Sarah Kennedy ’10 said she enjoyed the talk because Kopp was down-to-earth.

“The biggest thing about her is her presence,” Kennedy said. “She’s attained so much, and she’s a real person.”