Video: Wendy Kopp is 'Making a Difference'

By Anne Thompson Chief environmental correspondent
NBC News
updated 12/1/2006 7:19:50 PM ET 2006-12-02T00:19:50

This story is about the power of an idea to improve the prospects of one generation and the self-centered image of another.

Wendy Kopp is the founder of Teach for America and an evangelist for education reform in low-income areas.

"Six percent of the kids who are growing up in the communities where we were working will graduate from college," says Kopp. "We believe that that issue has to be our generation's civil rights issue."

So she started a kind of Peace Corps for teachers — recruiting some of the nation's brightest college grads, like Leyla Bravo, Harvard class of 2005.

Her bilingual third-graders in the South Bronx started the year barely literate in Spanish and unable to read or write English. One of her students, Jarlin, can now do both.

Kopp proposed the idea 17 years ago in her senior thesis at Princeton University.

"I started thinking, why aren't we being recruited as aggressively to teach in low-income communities as we were being recruited to work on Wall Street?" remembers Kopp.

Marvin Bressler was her adviser.

"My dear Miss Kopp, I said, you're quite obviously deranged," he recalls.

Kopp was determined to prove that her fellow grads, part of the so-called "Me Generation," would want to give back and teach.

But look who's laughing now. Teach for America has 4,400 corps members in 1,000 schools across the country and plans to grow even bigger. Today, Teach for America is as selective as an Ivy League school, turning down four of every five candidates. Not bad for a nonprofit organization that, at the start, was often on the brink of financial collapse.

Kopp spends countless hours raising money and rebutting critics who say her teachers lack crucial training. 

Now a 39-year-old mom with school-age children, Kopp fires back with studies showing the students doing better than the norm.

"Of the 12,000 alumni, some of whom started teaching 16 years ago, 63 percent are working in education," she says.

And the doubts of her college professor?

"I was quite obviously wrong, and nothing pleases me more than that I was wrong," says Bressler.

Wendy Kopp — one woman changing the perception of her generation and the lives of another.     

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