In a class of her own


What inspired Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America and Teach for All, to start an initiative to bridge the gaps in education?

It’s 7 a.m., and Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America and Teach for All, is discussing her schedule for the day with Teach for India (TFI) members in an almost-vacant cafe. She was recently in Chennai for a day as part of her all-India tour. The schedule, as it turns out, includes a visit to two TFI schools — one in Velachery and another in Taramani — a meeting with the State Education Minister, and a session with the TFI Fellows in the evening, post which she’ll head to Mumbai. Kopp is used to travelling for most part of the year, helping start new branches of Teach for All in different countries (there are 41 branches currently) and coming out with crisp five-year plans. So, that morning, while the schedule sounds exhausting to the rest, the only thing Wendy says with a sigh is: “I missed my morning run.”

Flashback to 1989. The NYC-based entrepreneur was an enthusiastic senior student in Princeton University who had this obsessive idea of bridging the gaps in education. “I was concerned about the inequities in our country, which calls itself the land of equal opportunities; but it really isn’t one,” she says. That was also the time when her batch was almost aggressively being recruited by top companies; and, instead of focussing on her placements, all she could think of was: What if fresh graduates were almost as aggressively recruited to teach the low-income communities for two years? It would work like a charm for two reasons: the kids would be educated, and the fresh graduates would mature into strong leaders. “I knew the idea was far beyond me. But I presented it in my undergraduate four-page thesis, and ended up getting a grant to start it. Right after I graduated, I started Teach for America,” she recalls. Later, she started getting enquiries from other countries — India, Chile, China, Lebanon, and so on — who wanted to kick-start a similar project, and that’s when Teach for All was born — nine years ago.

TFI was among the first, and the first in a developing country, to join the bandwagon. “When Shaheen Mistri (CEO, TFI) asked me to come to India, I was uncertain about whether what we have learnt through our experiences in the U.S. would be applicable in India. But, in the first week I spent here, I was struck by the similarities in terms of the challenges in the context of resources. I realised that the forces that give rise to inequities are the same — the mindset of people, lack of early literacy development, health care and nutrition…” Since the root cause was similar, she realised the solutions were shareable as well. While education is often seen as a very local issue, there also needs to be a global approach in addressing it, just like environmental and public health challenges, she explains. One of the important questions that people repeatedly asked Kopp was: Do you really think college students would spend two years of their lives working for the less-advantaged rather than finding means to make more money? But, she was more than convinced that her generation wanted to make a difference, so she took it up as a challenge to show those in the funding and education sector that there were youngsters interested in the project. “Together with three others from different colleges around the country, we launched the grassroots improvement campaign. We asked student leaders from 100 colleges to spread the word; there was no email then, we slid flyers under the doors, and, within four months, around 2,500 people applied.”

Twenty-seven years later, Kopp has volumes to tell about the impact the organisation has had in moulding the education scene across the world. “Washington DC was the lowest performer from among all the major urban districts in the U.S. Nine-year-olds were four years behind, less than five per cent who went to DC Public School would go on to get a college degree. No one thought this scenario would change. Now, the Washington school system is the fastest improving among the urban districts in the history of the country. It would be hard to imagine this without all the Teach for America (TFA) people who worked towards it,” she says.

“Twenty-five per cent of the school principals in the district are TFA alumni, and 900 teachers, including four of the last six Teachers of the Year, Commissioner of Education, and leaders of most of the NGOs in the city supporting the effort outside the system are from TFA. This gives me so much optimism in the possibilities in partner countries such as India,” she says.

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Printable version | Dec 7, 2019 7:12:39 PM |

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