Opening New Doors to Education Equality

    It the beginning of the year, Susan Asiyanbi realized that all of her New Jersey fourth- graders were performing at a second-grade math level. To improve their math skills, she divided students into groups by ability level and gave each group individual attention. She worked with students before class, doing computations on an interactive math Web site, and hosted math competitions to give her students an opportunity to showcase their talents. By the year’s end, all of her students increased at least two ‹ and sometimes three ‹ grade levels on the state math assessment.

    Courtesy of Teach For America
    Paving the way: Wendy Kopp continues to work for improvements in education.

    Asiyanbi, however, is not an official teacher. Like thousands of recent college graduates, she has committed two years to teaching in a low-income public school in an attempt to bridge the inequality in education that plagues many urban and rural schools across the country. For nearly 15 years, this has been the goal of the organization Teach For America, whose mission is to build a movement to eliminate educational inequity in this country.

    Teach for America has 1,800 corps members placed in schools in 20 locations throughout the United States. Their alumni members continue to support the organization and strive for long-term solutions that match their mission as educators and legislative policy makers.

    All of this was started by just one college student in 1988 ‹ Wendy Kopp.

    Alejandro Leon/Guardian

    In her dorm room at Princeton University, Kopp struck upon a revolutionary concept. If recent college graduates could commit two years to teach in urban and rural schools as a national teacher corps, she thought, then they could have a real impact on the lives of disadvantaged kids.

    Rather than letting her vision stay an idle dream, she took action. Using her required senior thesis as an opportunity to do the necessary research and planning for her proposal, Kopp developed the idea into an achievable organization.

    “”I was lucky that I had to write an undergraduate thesis,”” she said. “”Because I was so obsessed with this idea of a teaching corps, I chose to propose the national organization as part of it. I had the luxury to do the research and really make it happen.””

    Kopp is quick to point out that it was the reaction of the college and business communities that made the organization come to life.

    “”I think the idea of Teach for America and the vision that one day all children will be able to have an excellent education is something that magnetizes so many people,”” Kopp said. “”That was the key to getting off the ground. Our first year, before anyone had even heard of us, we had 2,500 college seniors apply. That, combined with the support from the philanthropic community, has been a huge factor in our success.””

    The timing seemed to be right since, within one year, Kopp was able to secure a seed grant from the Mobil Corporation and get the first teachers into classrooms in 1990. Her dedication to the organization, supported by thousands of volunteers, has allowed them to thrive and grow. She continues to serve as the president of the organization.

    The vision of Teach For America works on two levels. Not only do volunteers provide initial benefits to the children in the classrooms, but they also become leaders to effect long-term change. The members of the corps are paid by the school districts they work for, usually with the same full salaries and benefits of beginning teachers.

    Teach For America allows students to defer their student loans until after their two-year commitments are fulfilled, and if any interest is accrued the organization will pay it. Unfortunately, due to reduced AmeriCorps funding in the latest federal appropriations budget, they were unable to guarantee the previously-offered “”education awards”” they once received. The education award is a credit of $4,725-per-year of service that corps members can use to pay back undergraduate debt and to pay future educational expenses. However, they have already made adjustments to offer a similar alternative benefit.

    “”We began working immediately upon hearing that these awards were in jeopardy to develop alternatives to support our ability to recruit a diverse corps,”” Kopp stated in a letter earlier this year. “”We were able to ensure that current corps members receive the equivalent of education awards this year.””

    The creation of Teach For America and the challenges of helping it thrive has been educational for Kopp. Not only has she gained a perspective on what the power of an idea can accomplish, she has reaffirmed her confidence in the potential of this corps of teachers.

    “”The last decade has been an intense learning experience,”” Kopp said. “”Two things that we see daily collectively fuel our sense of urgency. First, the disparities that exist in our country in education, which is supposed to be the land of opportunity. And second, it is that when kids are given the opportunities they deserve, they absolutely excel on an absolute scale. If anything, I’m more convinced now that one day all kids will have a chance to have an excellent education. The question is, will the most talented members of our generation step up and commit the effort?””

    This effort is more than just a two-year commitment, but the continued support of the cause. Many of the program’s past participants work to change education on a large scale for the long term.

    “”We view our mission as really trying to inspire the future leaders in all fields,”” Kopp said. “”We are building a force of people inside and outside of education who will be able to affect the change that needs to happen.””

    The inspiring life of Kopp can be appreciated firsthand when she visits campus as one of a select few universities on her national tour. She will be speaking Nov. 13 in Price Center Theater from 12:15 p.m. to 1:15 p.m. You can learn more about how she was able to transform her vision into reality.

    Looking back on her experiences, Kopp encourages college students to not give up on their ambitions, no matter how difficult they may seem.

    “”I have come to believe all the more during my 14 years with the program that young people have the advantage in facing entrenched problems because they come to them with a fresh perspective, endless energy and a unique optimism,”” she said. “”Young people, while they are young, should pursue their big ideas and idealistic dreams.””

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