The founder of Teach for America told an Evanston audience Wednesday that naivete and inexperience were largely responsible for helping her create an organization of college graduates to make a difference for inner city kids.

Wendy Kopp delivered the inaugural Ray and Nancy Loeschner Lecture on Leadership to a rain-soaked audience at Northwestern University’s Donald P. Jacobs Center that included the university’s president, Morton Schapiro.

Created in 1990 with an initial group of 50 starry-eyed graduates, Teach for America today sends more than 10,000 volunteers into under-resourced, low-performing public schools across the country, often facing resistance from entrenched teachers unions.

She told how she came up with what she termed the Big Idea while writing her senior thesis at Princeton University. 

She reasoned that many idealistic college students could be recruited to serve two years in a Peace-Corps-like organization as teachers in impoverished inner-city schools, after which they would resume their career paths in finance, management, medicine, law, and the like.

A byproduct of that experience, Kopp said, was that TFA alumni would serve as knowledgeable advocates for public education in their communities as a result of their hands-on experience in the classroom.

She confessed that she “completely underestimated” what it would take to implement her idea and found the exxperience to be “extremely challenging and very stressful.”

Helping the cause along was a $500,000 grant from Ross Perot, she said.

One of the organization’s biggest success stories, she said, was in New Orleans. Even before Hurricane Katrina ravaged the area, only 54 percent of high school students went on to graduate and only 20 percent entered college. 

Today, by contrast, some 78 percent of students graduate from high school and 40 percent go on to college, she said.

Despite the apparent success of the organization, teachers unions have complained that the TFA organization has fostered the charter school movement and that many of the volunteers are poorly trained to meet the differentiated needs of students.

Others have criticized the commitment of the volunteers, as many of them are teaching as only a waypoint on the path to more lucrative careers in other fields.

Kopp maintains, however, that the growing cadre of alumni are making a difference on school boards and other community groups dedicated to improving education in their communities.

She concluded that the TFA has demonstrated “the incredible power of youth and inexperience.”

Today, Kopp is CEO and co-founder of Teacher for All, a global network of nonprofit organizations that extends the Teach for America model in other countries.

She remains, however, as board chair of Teach for America.

Charles Bartling

A resident of Evanston since 1975, Chuck Bartling holds a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University and has extensive experience as a reporter and editor for daily newspapers, radio...

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