Campus Life Editor
Wendy Kopp, founder and CEO of Teach for America (TFA) and co-founder and CEO of Teach for All, visited the College to lead a Common Hour lecture entitled “Building a Movement for Educational Opportunity for All” last Thursday, Oct. 4.
Kopp’s idea for TFA, a movement consisting of a corps of leaders intent on bringing educational equity and opportunity to low-income communities nationwide, stemmed from her senior thesis as an undergraduate at Princeton University in 1989.
Since 1990, more than 30,000 leaders have participated in TFA, completing the two-year teaching commitment, and many have continued their dedication to the cause beyond the minimum, heading school districts, developing and staffing transformational schools such as the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) Academies, and furthering the movement through political and social efforts. Currently, there are over 10,000 corps members serving 36 states and Washington D.C., 5,800 of which were selected from over 50,000 applicants to begin their commitment this fall.
Kopp, who was named one of the “World’s Seven Most Powerful Educators” by Forbes in 2011, was introduced Thursday by Dan Porterfield, president of the College.
“It is a signature pleasure for me to be able to bring one of my friends and role models to campus and to introduce her and her extraordinary work and vision to all of you,” Porterfield said.
Porterfield spoke briefly about not only the scope of TFA but the College’s involvement, sharing statistics including that with 13 percent of the Class of 2012 having applied, F&M is one of more than 130 colleges and universities from which more than five percent of graduates apply to TFA; and, with 13 members of the class of 2012 and three young alumni beginning the program this year, F&M ranks ninth among liberal arts colleges that send graduates to TFA.
“It is truly a signature pleasure to be here at F&M,” Kopp said, echoing Porterfield’s sentiment. “Dan Porterfield is one of our heroes at Teach For America — literally. We first got to know him when I think he reached out to us saying we’ve got to do better in ensuring that particularly those folks who have actually experienced the inequity that we’re working to address at TFA and who do make it through college apply for, join, and ultimately lead TFA. He has, I believe, cultivated and mentored about 100 of these first generation college students into TFA. And his example is charting the course of what we’re working to do all over the country.”
Kopp then turned her attention to the audience, lauding the F&M community as a whole.
“I really believe what you’re doing here could be a demonstration to the whole country about how to truly take on educational inequity not only in the K12 system but far beyond,” she said.
With that, Kopp launched into her presentation, highlighting the extent of the educational inequity crisis and outlining the steps being taken to resolve it. She drew parallels to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s fight for equality, sharing personal anecdotes about her experiences, and calling to action all those who realize what it takes to make a difference.
“Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke in this same auditorium almost 50 years ago,” Kopp said. “It was 1963 at the height of the struggle for civil rights, and he filled this gym to capacity and predicted the end of segregation before the Franklin and Marshall community. His speech is, as I read it, almost eerily relevant to the situation that we’re in today. Educational inequity has been called the civil rights battle of this generation.”
This battle, Kopp explained, is fought for the 16 million or so children living below the poverty line in the United States, only eight percent of which will ever earn a college degree as compared to the 80 percent of children from higher-income families who will receive a degree.
“It’s been nearly 60 years since the Supreme Court struck down ‘separate but equal’ and mandated the desegregation of schools, and yet today it is still true that the neighborhood where a child is born and the color of their skin predicts the quality of education they will receive and, as a result, their opportunities in life,” Kopp said.
Twenty years ago, fixing poverty was the main objective, according to Kopp, but now a different stance is being taken.
“We should do that [fix poverty], but we don’t have to wait to do that to give the kids who are growing up today in our urban and rural communities the kind of education that gives them the tools to actually break the cycle of poverty,” she said.
Right now, this problem can be addressed by putting competent, motivated teachers in the classroom and starting new schools where the focus is to change the trajectory of low-income students to include college and a successful life beyond.
Kopp shared a story about TFA corps member Ivy Martinez, who encouraged her young students, whom she was able to teach for two consecutive years, and gave them the tools necessary to change the way they approached learning, improve their skills from below to above grade level, and aspire to make it to and through college successfully.
“What’s been so encouraging is to see the Ivy’s of the world say, ‘You know what, let’s reinvent schools. Let’s actually take what we’ve learned as teachers who have in fact made a meaningful difference with their kids, and let’s actually create a new kind of school to make this more feasible for talented, committed teachers to achieve life-changing results for kids,’” Kopp said.
Today there are hundreds of transformational schools, including 20 in Philadelphia, a city that was considered almost beyond help. Kopp believes these schools and these communities demonstrate the difference that can be made.
“There’s no magic to this; there’s absolutely nothing elusive about it,” Kopp said. “In the end, the way to solve it is ultimately all about leadership.”
Luckily for Kopp, the answer dovetails nicely with TFA’s ultimate mission.
“Our mission is to cultivate the leadership necessary to ensure that our country one day actually lives up to its ideals and can, in fact, be a place of equal opportunity,” she said. “I think there’s a huge implication for each of us as individuals because now that we know we can solve the problem and we know that leadership is the key, it’s sort of on us, I think, to be those leaders.”
Kopp went on to conduct an extensive question-and-answer session, taking questions from students, faculty, and members of the Lancaster community ranging from the role of creativity in the classroom to teacher strikes to the allocation of funds. Ultimately, however, she left the audience with a romantic notion and a challenge.
“We can realize Dr. King’s vision,” Kopp said. “We can fulfill our ideals as a nation. The only question in my mind based on everything I’ve seen over the last two decades is whether enough of our country’s future leaders will step up and decide: I’m going to help lead us to that day.”
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