A Youth Worker’s Bumpy Road to National Success

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ONE DAY, ALL CHILDREN...

The Unlikely Triumph of TEACH FOR AMERICA and What I Learned Along The Way
Wendy KoppPublicAffairs, New York
187 pp., $23

Thousands of poor children trapped in often shabby schools can thank God that Wendy Kopp never took a course in nonprofit management, attended a teacher's college or had a clue about the "proper" way to raise money when she graduated from Princeton in 1989. While a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, no knowledge at all can liberate. In Kopp's case it led to her audacious start of Teach For America (TFA), which has placed 6,000 exceptional college graduates in some of the nation's worst and most neglected public schools.

The greatest strength of Kopp's ardent yet entertaining book is her recounting of the organizational evolution of TFA's tumultuous first decade. Good ideas to help kids are as are plentiful as the facile justifications that our most fortunate citizens and their political leaders come up with to sanction a status quo that leaves 12.4 million children in poverty.

Kopp's success really began not with another good idea and not by her impressive "level of access," but by being "bold enough to ask for it." In a single year Kopp, then 21, wanted to raise $2.5 million to recruit, train and place 500 energetic but "unqualified" teachers in urban and rural schools. (Actually, most of her success stories are about people who function as both teachers and youth workers.) This foolhardy scheme needed only sage advice from a few philanthropic or education reform windbags to deflate Kopp's cherubic sense of the possible.

Fortunately, Kopp blissfully shopped her idea elsewhere and landed a $26,000 seed grant from Mobile Oil and the use of vacant Manhattan office space from Union Carbide. From then on TFA was on a roll - as in rolling over Niagara Falls in a barrel. It is this Perils of Pauline quality that gives Kopp's portrait of a nonprofit artist as a young woman a plot line filled with the kind of tension so often missing in accounts of schoolhouse redemptions.

Kopp's organizational odyssey goes not from school to school, but from payroll to payroll, as she more than once comes up with the $200,000 needed every two weeks with just hours to spare. That's life as usual for many founder-directors that lead youth-serving agencies, and it places Kopp, her staff and supporters squarely in the entrepreneurial world of youth services, not that of often calcified public education (at least as it existed before the charter school movement began spooning Drano down its throat).

Kopp's book is not without its annoyances. An index would be nice; so, too, would dropping that cloying Ivy League need to tell the reader where every staffer went to college - that is if they attended an Ivy League school. Otherwise, it seems, Kopp is too embarrassed to mention that someone went to, say, Kansas State.

For one so early in her career (she's only 34), Kopp is remarkably candid. Still, Kopp is prudent with an eye always to the future, and she names the heroes. Among them (not unexpectedly) are Michael Osheowitz of the Edwin Gould Foundation for Children, Rick Love of the Knight Foundation, Jack Mawdsley of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and Don and Doris Fisher, founders of The Gap. Unlikely heroes include Ross Perot, who reluctantly gave $500,000 when Kopp camped in his office after a three-year campaign to get an appointment, naively thinking, "He's from Dallas, I'm from Dallas, he's really into education reform."

Also lending aid were such improbable public figures as former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Chris Wittle, creator of Channel One and CEO of the for-profit Edison Schools (which next school year will run 139 schools with 75,000 students). Whittle initially tried to recruit Kopp from TFA with a dazzling financial offer. Realizing TFA would not survive her departure, Kopp declined. A Whittle staffer, Nick Glover, worked pro bono to help a tottering TFA regain its balance and momentum.

Consultant Glover found that the early years of rapid growth and bare cupboards had left TFA with the same painful staff problems that plague many newly minted nonprofits that have more mission than money. Kopp assumed, as many crusaders do, that everyone on her staff (which grew to 50) would share her priorities and unflagging commitment. On rookie manager Kopp's dream team, all staff would be paid the same ($25,000 per year), hierarchy would be unnecessary and decisions would be made collectively at free-form meetings that began at 9 p.m. on Mondays and ended hours after midnight.

Inevitably, squabbling and rancor permeated the TFA collective. As TFA began its third year, a "coup de Kopp" unfolded at one of those late-night marathons. The staff's ultimatum: "All organizational decisions would be made by vote, or everyone would quit." Exhausted by staff problems, fund-raising pressures, and burdened with the fate of 500 TFA recruits scheduled to begin training the next day, Kopp had a perfect opportunity to honorably let TFA commit organizational suicide. Happily, Kopp took the management advice offered two years before by City Year co-founder Michael Brown to stick with the mission and "just say no" to those proposing mission blur. TFA, Kopp decided, would hew to its mission of aiding in the education of poor children, not adopt a new mission of making its young and inexperienced staff feel good while TFA imploded.

Eventually, Kopp, aided by Glover, developed TFA's management structure to the benefit of all concerned. But TFA was a long way from becoming an established part of the national fabric. In 1994 the teacher's college industry, smarting from TFA's glowing national press and Kopp's unorthodox views on teacher preparation, struck back in the pages of Phi Delta Kappan. Playing the role of the Wicked Witch from the East was Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor at Columbia Teacher's College. In her article, "Who Will Speak for the Children," Darling-Hammond made clear it should be her, not Kopp. TFA, she wrote histrionically, "ultimately hurt many schools and the children in them." In charging that TFA teachers were "not really dedicated," the confused professor must have thought she was serving as a union representative on a grievance committee.

If research professor Darling-Hammond had bothered to ask the principals of the schools where TFA placed teachers, a very different assessment would have emerged. Over 95 percent of principals reported that TFA members were as good, or better, than their other new hires trained at teacher colleges.

Kopp's experiences with higher education, which fancies itself the torchbearer of enlightened progress, illustrate just how much these proud towers have become isolated from the nation's poor. Princeton (endowment: $8 billion) gave Kopp some free advice, an honorary degree but not much else. The University of Houston barred TFA from using its campus one summer for teacher training until the bill payment was guaranteed in advance. Reading Kopp's book made this reviewer pine for another about elite colleges entitled, "Leach off America."

Other challenges, including TFA's near-fatal encounter with federal funding from the Corporation for National Service (CNS) and the waning of support from other foundations, lay ahead. But after 12 years Kopp has stayed the course. Today TFA has an annual budget of $17 million ($1.6 million of it from a repentant CNS) plus an expansion fund of $21 million. The TFA corps has grown to 2,000 strong this year.

Once given too much easy praise for accomplishing little, Kopp has now grown into the role that she was prematurely assigned by the national press. Perhaps one day Kopp will be well-equipped for a masterful sequel in which she can report that all children in this nation have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.

 

 

 

Youth Today Publisher Bill Treanor is a 10th grade dropout with a GED and Harvard graduate degree.