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One on 1 Profile: Teach For America Founder Wendy Kopp Continues To Combat Educational Inequity

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Wendy Kopp has taken her fight for educational equality across America and the world since she founded Teach For America in 1989. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following report.

More than 20 years ago, Wendy Kopp came up with an idea. It's an idea that has taken her around the city, around the country, around the world.

"In the last few months, I found myself, you know, in classrooms from Pakistan to the most remote parts of rural China," she says.

The idea was 'Teach for America.' Kopp dreamed it up as a senior thesis at Princeton in 1989. The program sends college graduates to teach in high-need schools for a minimum of two years. The one time small national service program boasts a domestic budget of $260 million.

Much has changed for Kopp and Teach for America since the initial years of struggle.
But the core issue of educational inequity remains the same.

"Why are we okay with 8 percent of our kids in low-income communities graduating from college?" she says. "Why are we okay with the reality that we figure out how many prisons to build just by looking at third grade reading levels?"

Kopp's days begin at 3 a.m., checking emails and going for her daily run before her four kids wake up.

The program now has an international arm called "Teach for All," which makes the balance of work and family even more challenging.

"What better thing to do then to go help the folks who are trying to gain governmental approval and private sector support to launch this program in Brazil?" she says. "I mean, once I get there, it will be great but I will have this huge weight as I head off to that airport just because of what I'm leaving behind."

The program seems like a win win: engaged college graduates either temporarily or permanently eschewing other fields to teach.

But Kopp says people still have questions, including her eight-year-old son.

"(He asked,) 'If this is such a big problem, like, this problem of educational inequality, why would you take people just out of college and ask them to take two years to solve it? It doesn't make sense.' I was like 'ahhhh.'"

Kopp says the passion of the Teach for America corps members is transforming. But Teach for America has faced its share of criticism. For example, critics say that its summertime training program doesn't prepare first-year teachers for the challenge ahead.

"There is just no way to make this easy," Kopp says. "That's the bottom line. So 20 years in, it's still going to be excruciatingly and unimaginably hard for our teachers in the first six months of the classroom and beyond."

The two-year commitment has also been questioned. Kopp says it is fundamental to the program.

"Our applicant pool fell in half when we asked for a three-year commitment," she says. "It doubled if we asked for one year. The reason this plays out is that 22-year-olds think that two years is the rest of their life."

There's also the question of if Teach for America, with all its good intentions, somehow slights longtime teachers and educators.

"If I was a veteran teacher who taught for 20 years and was incredibly committed and teaching in remote parts of the South Bronx and I heard about this idea, that it was going to take people and just teach for two years, at first blush I would think 'How arrogant is that?'" Kopp says.

Kopp's view is much broader than "first blush." She sees a program that is increasingly working in tandem with school districts, with many corps members teaching beyond the two-year commitment while others are choosing careers connected to education.

"Ultimately, we're going to have a leadership force of people in every level of the education system, every level of policy, across professional sectors who know what you know when you've taught successfully in a low-income community," she says.

Wendy Kopp grew up in Dallas. Her folks ran a small business. She says her neighborhood was called 'the bubble.'"

"I somehow left home and went to Princeton without really realizing anything about the disparities in our country," she says.

In her freshman year, Kopp says the women who lived down the hall all had gone to prep school and thought Princeton a cakewalk. Her roommate, who'd gone to public school in the Bronx, saw it differently.

"There were lots of struggles despite her incredible level of intelligence and motivation and all of that, just because she hadn't had the same kind of education," she says. "So I guess that turned me on to this sort of reality that where you're born does determine, in general, your educational prospects."

As a senior, Kopp organized a conference on educational inequity. She then had an idea for an ad campaign for teachers. Her thesis advisor suggested that it be a national service program. He was her first skeptic.

"I had a budget in the thesis saying it was going to cost $2.5 million in the first year," she says. "He said 'Do you know how hard it is to raise $2,500 let alone $2.5 million?'"

Kopp persevered. She wrote to 30 CEO's for grant money, and soon found herself sitting in the office of billionaire businessman Ross Perot. She refused to take no for an answer.

"I was asking him for $1 million," she says. "He said 'I'll tell you what. I'll give you $500,000 if you can raise the other $1.5 (million). I'm sure he thought 'not a chance' but I met enough people who sort of thought it was a good idea but didn't think was going to happen who I knew once he said that we're done."

Kopp's persistence helped create Teach for America. And she says the timing was perfect.
National service was in the air, with programs like AmeriCorps and City Year.

"There was this mood on college campuses," she says. "I wasn't alone. There were thousands of people who were just searching for something and corporate America was looking for something to support in the realm of education. They wanted to make a difference in education. So all those things came together and I was feeling a huge sense of urgency. I didn't think there was an option to wait."

In the early days, there was a great sense of purpose and a great fear of financial failure.

"There is just no stress like that where you think you've got all these staff and this whole thing and a lot of people have put themselves into it and you're realizing that it might just fall apart and you might be the one that's responsible for that," she says.

During the early morning runs, the visits to schools, the treks around the world, Wendy Kopp understands that the battle against education inequality rages on, as does her passion for changing the system.

"Most highly sought after recent college graduates with the most demonstrative leadership potential are channeling their energy not into corporations on Wall Street, which is fine, but into classrooms in the remote parts of the Bronx or into Newark, New Jersey or remote parts of the Mississippi delta," she says. "I mean, just think of the long-term power of that."

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