Wendy Kopp– A SUCCESS STORY
Wendy Sue Kopp was born in Austin, Texas. Her parents operated a small business, a newsletter they had purchased, advising visitors of the attractions of Austin. They enlarged the newsletter into a guidebook and made a success of the business, moving on to San Antonio, and then to Dallas, where they settled in the Park Cities area so Wendy could attend the highly rated local schools. She was an outstanding student, and an enthusiastic participant in a wide variety of extracurricular activities. She graduated from Highland Park High School and entered Princeton University as a public policy major in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
At Princeton, Kopp came into contact with students from a far more diverse array of backgrounds than she had encountered in high school. She quickly became aware that students from disadvantaged communities, whatever their talents, came to college less prepared than those from more affluent areas. As an undergraduate, Kopp was so involved with other activities, such as the Foundation for Student Communication, that she neglected to choose a topic for her senior thesis until almost the last moment. At the foundation, she had organized a conference on improving the American system of public education, particularly in poorly served rural and urban areas. She knew many students who were interested in teaching in these areas, but while recruiters for financial service firms made a thorough effort to recruit outstanding college graduates, there was no comparable effort to recruit gifted students for teaching and public service.
For her senior thesis, Kopp drew up a proposal for a national service organization, modeled on the Peace Corps, which would recruit graduates of the nation’s top universities to teach in underserved areas. Her thesis adviser, sociology professor Marvin Bressler, was impressed with the proposal but saw it as more of an intellectual exercise than a practical proposal, since he doubted she could ever raise the funds necessary to implement such a scheme in the real world.
At the same time, Kopp knew she needed to find a job to support herself after graduation. She made a brief effort to find work on Wall Street, in investment banks and consulting firms, but she knew her heart was not in it. The idea of a volunteer teacher corps had captured her imagination, and whenever she read an interview with a business leader who said he was interested in improving education, she sent him a copy of her thesis, “A Plan and Argument for the Creation of a National Teacher Corps.”
In the spring of her senior year, she met with executives of some of the nation’s largest corporations to discuss her proposal. Shortly before graduation, Union Carbide offered her free office space in New York City, and Mobil Oil gave her a seed grant to live on while she pursued further support for her teacher corps. After receiving her degree in 1989, Kopp moved to New York City, and spent the summer lining up donors, visiting school systems, recruiting a board of directors and hiring a small staff of four. A grant from the philanthropy Echoing Green enabled Kopp and her staff to set up a headquarters in a larger office space donated by investment bank Morgan Stanley. After many attempts, their work came to the attention of philanthropist H. Ross Perot, who offered a three-to-one challenge grant.
Many potential donors believed the only solution to the shortcomings of the education system lay in improving the quality of training available at established teachers’ colleges and schools of education. Others believed young people of Kopp’s generation were too self-centered to volunteer for such a project. Kopp was sure they were wrong. With her growing staff, which now included her future husband, Richard Barth, she built a network of representatives on campuses across the country. The promising response to their recruitment efforts attracted media attention, which in turn drew more volunteers. Within four months, the invitation had received 2,500 volunteer applications from over 100 colleges. Kopp and her staff selected 500 to serve as the charter corps members. After a summer of intensive training, they fanned out across the country.
The success of Teach For America in its first year attracted national attention, and donations poured in. In the next years, the number of areas served by the organization expanded rapidly, and summer teaching institutes were established in Los Angeles, Houston, New York City, and later Philadelphia, to train the ever-growing corps of teachers. In 2005, Teach For America received a record number of 17,000 applications, and was the number one employer of new graduates on some college campuses. That autumn, Wendy Kopp created a Katrina Relief Corps to serve students and communities impacted by Hurricane Katrina.
In 2007, Kopp founded Teach For All, a global network of independent social enterprises that applies the principles of Teach For America around the world. After leading Teach For America for 24 years, Wendy Kopp relinquished her day-to-day duties as president of the organization; she continues to chair the board of Teach For America and serves as CEO of Teach For All.
By 2013, more than 10,000 Teach For America corps members were teaching in the country’s neediest communities, reaching approximately 750,000 students. They join more than 28,000 Teach For America alumni — many still in their 20s and 30s — who are assuming significant leadership roles in education and social reform. Teach For America alumni have now headed school systems at the state level, and in some of the nation’s biggest cities, including New Orleans, Newark, New York City and Washington, D.C.
Wendy Kopp has recounted these experiences in her books One Day, All Children: The Unlikely Triumph of Teach For America and A Chance to Make History: What Works and What Doesn’t in Providing an Excellent Education for All. In her books, she not only describes how she created and built Teach For America and Teach For All, but also shares her thoughts about what it will take to realize her vision that one day all children will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education. Her accomplishment has been recognized with numerous awards and honors, including honorary doctorates from Princeton, Smith College, Georgetown, Boston University and Harvard.
Today, Wendy Kopp lives in New York City with her husband, KIPP Foundation President Richard Barth, and their four children. Her work with Teach For America and Teach For All, as well as frequent speaking engagements, routinely take her from coast to coast and around the world.