Helping college grads give something back to the education system Wendy Kopp turned her idea for an elite teaching corps into a reality

September 16, 1990|By Alice Steinbach | Alice Steinbach,Sun Staff Correspondent

NEW YORK -- When she was 21, it was a very good year for Wendy Kopp: She graduated from Princeton (class of '89), parlayed her senior thesis on the creation of a Peace Corps for teachers into a non-profit corporation, coaxed more than $1 million from sponsors such as the Mobil Corp. and Union Carbide and, a month after graduation, started administering her program, Teach for America, from donated office space in Manhattan.

And to top it all off, she got an A on her thesis.

But, look, that was 1989; this is 1990. So what has Wendy Kopp been doing lately?

Well, when she was 22, it was another very good year. She lined up the heads of major corporations such as American Cyanamid and the Xerox Corp. to serve on Teach for America's board, raised more funds from foundations and corporations, contacted school district officials around the country to verify that they'd be interested in hiring college graduates with teaching certificates, attended numerous education conferences seeking advice on the best training for her recruits and, finally, sent young recruiters out to interview applicants at 100 top universities and colleges. Anyone from any campus may apply, and applications are accepted as well from individuals already out of school.

The student response surprised many: More than 2,600 seniors applied, from such colleges as Harvard, Brown, Williams, Yale, as well as many of the major state universities. From this group, 505 were selected to participate in the first Teach for America corps. Starting this month, the young teachers have been assigned to inner-city classrooms in Los Angeles, New York, New Orleans, Baton Rouge and rural districts in North Carolina and Georgia.

But Wendy Kopp, now 23, was not surprised by the response. "knew students would respond to this," she says, sitting in Teach for America's offices on the 33rd floor of the McGraw Hill Building. "It's such a natural. Because it just fits in with the mind-set of what graduating seniors are looking for. They don't have to be sold on the program, because they're looking for ways to take on a lot of responsibility and to give something back to this educational system that has given them so much."

Ms. Kopp, who grew up in Dallas and attended private and public schools there, telegraphs complete confidence when laying out her plans for Teach for America. When she hits a snag -- and there have been some -- she simply attacks the problem. "You can get around anything," says Ms. Kopp. "And I just have this attitude that things will work out."

That's the attitude, say those who know her, which enabled her to conceptualize and create Teach for America in less than a year.

"She came in one day and told me she had this idea for the development of a teacher corps," says Marvin Bressler, chairman of Princeton's sociology department and Ms. Kopp's thesis adviser. "What she proposed to do was have it financed completely by private money, involve the entire education community in it and have it done and ready to go in a year ... I said, 'Kid, this is a demented idea.'"

But Ms. Kopp persisted and finally Professor Bressler reluctantly agreed to the thesis material. "It turned out to be an absolutely brilliant thesis," he says. "She wrote in her preface she was going to start the week after graduation. Well, I'd heard that before. Three weeks later she called me from Union Carbide's offices, already at work. I can't tell you how much I admire her."

What Ms. Kopp did in those three weeks after graduation was this: She turned her thesis into a booklet that outlined her ideas for Teach for America and sent it out to about 30 chief executives of major American corporations. One executive who was impressed with the booklet was Rex Adams, who as vice president of administration at the Mobil Corp. oversees the Mobil Foundation.

"We get flooded with requests like this, but this was very well-written, so I took the trouble to read it," says Mr. Adams. "What struck me most was that it was a very specific, targeted attempt to deal with one aspect of the education problem. Most want to tackle this problem in a very cosmic way. And I thought, 'It's a pity. She's done so much work, and she's going to get chewed alive and maybe she could use a little advice from a more experienced person."

They met, and it was the Professor Bressler syndrome all over again. "She is quite impressive in her determination and preparation," says Mr. Adams. "I asked what the bare minimum was to keep the project going for three months. We gave her $26,000. And she hasn't looked back."

A Princeton professor described Ms. Kopp as someone who is "undeterred by complexity ... and considers everything."

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