Laura isn’t a good student. Her record says she has “attitude problems.” Teachers say that she resents their authority and refuses to apply herself. There are too many students and not enough resources in Laura’s school, so it’s easy for her teachers to unconsciously deny her the same level of engagement and respect they give the better students.

Laura is “at risk.” She’s Latino and from a poor family, increasing the likelihood that she will not graduate from high school, not go to college, and never achieve her full potential as a student, as an employee, as a person.

• • • • •

In 1988, Wendy Kopp was a student at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. She was searching for a topic for her senior thesis, looking for a cause that would make a difference in the world. Kopp said she grew up in a bubble, unaware of the disparity between the education she received in an elite New York neighborhood and that of students in less-affluent areas a few miles away. It wasn’t until she got to college that she saw that not all public school educations were equal: some of her smartest classmates weren’t as well prepared for college as she was, due to deficient schools.

POVERTY IN OUR SCHOOLS
  • 13 million kids are growing up below the poverty level in the US today.
  • Half of them will not graduate from high school, and the half that do will only function at an eighth grade level.
  • Only 7% of kids that grow up in poverty will attend college. Even fewer will graduate.

The more she researched the education and achievement gap along socio-economic and racial lines, the more impassioned she became. The numbers she saw shocked her: millions of American children growing up in poverty who would never have the chance to improve their situation due to poorly funded, overcrowded, under-resourced schools that all but denied them success.

Kopp’s senior thesis hammered out the details of Teach For America, a program that would harness the passion and idealism of students right out of college and put it to work in impoverished schools across the nation. “When I first thought of it, I became obsessed with the idea,” said Kopp, who hoped the U.S. government would adopt her program as a national teaching corps. She wrote to the White House, full of confidence that her proposal would be accepted.

It wasn’t.

Undeterred, she launched TFA as a nonprofit organization. At 21-years old, she raised $2.5 million from corporate and individual sponsors, hired a staff, and recruited and trained 500 young men and women from across the country to be teachers in six low-income communities.

• • • • •

A Mays Business Fellows trip to New York City during spring break of her senior year changed the direction of Angelina Fonseca’s life. It was on this trip that the marketing major from Lake Jackson, Texas, first came in contact with Teach For America.

Mays grad Angelina Fonseca (left) went from college classrooms to one of her own at an elementary school in Brownsville, Texas.
Mays grad Angelina Fonseca (left) went from college classrooms to one of her own at an elementary school in Brownsville, Texas.

Fonseca ’06 was drawn to the organization’s mission of providing all children, no matter where they live or how much money their family has, with a high-quality education that would put them on equal ground with children in the best schools. One month before graduating from Mays Business School at Texas A&M University, Fonseca applied to the TFA program. She was accepted, went through an intensive crash course in teaching that summer, earned her state teaching certificates, and was placed in a 5th grade classroom in Brownsville, Texas, in August.

At A&M, Fonseca minored in Spanish, planning to pursue a career in international marketing. When she joined TFA, some asked her why she would throw away her business degree and ambitions in order to teach. Fonseca says it was just the opposite: teaching is applied creative marketing. On a daily basis, Fonseca used innovative messages to reach her audience. If they “bought” her message, she saw the results in orderly behavior and good study habits as well as higher test scores. Her international aspiration was fulfilled as well: Her classroom, near the Mexico border, was completely bilingual. She taught every subject in Spanish and English. Fonseca says that her business background and lack of an education degree was actually a plus, as she was able to enter the classroom with a fresh approach to teaching.

• • • • •

Kopp, now wearing the title of founder and CEO of Teach For America, was honored with the 2008 Kupfer Distinguished Executive Award at Mays in September 2008. This award is given in memory of Harold Kupfer ’54 and recognizes a business professional that has made a significant impact on the world. Gerald Ray ’54 and Donald Zale ’55 sponsor the Kupfer Distinguished Executive event to honor their friend and fellow Corps member.

Wendy Kopp outlined her vision for Teach for America in her senior thesis twenty years ago. Today she is the CEO of the non-profit foundation.
Wendy Kopp outlined her vision for Teach for America in her senior thesis twenty years ago. Today she is the CEO of the non-profit foundation.

“Still to this day, in this country that aspires to be a land of opportunity for all, where you’re born determines your educational prospects and your life prospects,” said Kopp, who addressed a class of more than 300 Mays undergraduate students during her visit to campus. TFA’s mission is to build the movement to eliminate educational inequity in the nation by enlisting its most promising future leaders in the effort. “Ultimately, I know we’ll get there,” says Kopp, who describes TFA teachers as “relentless” and “inspiring leaders” that motivate their students with their passion. “They go into a situation a lot of people have given up on…and they set a vision,” she said. “What they’re proving to us at the classroom level is that [educational inequality] is a problem that is solvable.”

Since its inception, Teach For America has impacted hundreds of thousands of young people in urban and rural areas by providing them with excellent teachers. There are currently 6,000 TFA teachers in the field and 14,000 alumni. Kopp encouraged her student audience to consider serving some of the 13 million children growing up in poverty in the U.S. for two years as a teacher after graduating from Mays.

Fonseca is only one of the many Mays graduates that have taken on Kopp’s challenge.

• • • • •

At the start of Laura’s fifth grade year, something happens. She has a new teacher, one who seems to genuinely believe that she can succeed. Laura is singled out for encouragement and praise, something that has seldom happened to her in a classroom.

Soon, Laura is excited to go to school each day. She starts turning in homework and earning high marks on it. Her test scores improve. The new teacher even asks Laura to be a peer leader, tutoring her classmates during the day. By the end of the year, this once-troubled student earns a perfect score on statewide tests in reading, achieving the highest score in her whole class.

When she enters the 6th grade the next fall, Laura is no longer “at risk.” Her new enthusiasm for learning, brought about through the influence of one teacher, has laid the foundation for a lifetime of academic success.

• • • • •

A classroom should run like a business, reasoned Fonseca. She would be the manager, seeking to have her employees (students) give their best effort to achieve a shared goal (achieving 90 percent or higher on weekly assessments and on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills at the end of the year). Once the students were excited about achieving the goal together, Fonseca measured their success through quarterly reports of test scores mapped on Excel spreadsheets, rewarding them with bonuses when they showed improvement and changing strategies for success when they didn’t.


“It’s life changing,” said Mays graduate Angela Fonseca of her TFA experience. “It’s a very rewarding job. You see the impact, the growth, the change, immediately.”

She found the students responded immediately when she empowered them in the classroom, creating peer managers, so that students governed each other. Poor behavior led to a loss of management status. “They loved those leadership roles,” said Fonseca. “They enjoyed having that kind of good competition, whether it was 10- and 11-year-olds, or four- and five-year-olds.” In her second year, Fonseca put these same principals into practice in a new classroom, teaching bilingual pre-kindergarten. The innovative methods were hugely successful: 95 percent of her students met or exceeded their class achievement goals, blowing past national and statewide norms. There were individual success stories, too, like Laura, one of Fonseca’s star pupils. “I am so proud of my kids,” she said. “They really achieved a lot.”

Today, Fonseca is a study abroad advisor in the International Programs Office at Texas A&M. She says in her current job she uses everyday her TFA-learned skills such as conflict resolution, management, market assessment, and multitasking.

“It’s life changing,” said Fonseca of her TFA experience. “It’s a very rewarding job. You see the impact, the growth, the change, immediately.”  Fonseca says her future plans involve graduate school and a career in marketing, but that she will always be an advocate for equal education and nation wide education reform. In October of this year, she participated in a forum at the George Bush Presidential Library called “Too Many Left Behind: How Do We Close the Gap?” which focused on the achievement disparity between children in wealthy and poor schools. Fonseca also helps with TFA recruiting efforts on campus, speaking with interested students during informational meetings.

Fonseca says too many people with no experience in the classroom think they know the reasons needy students aren’t as likely to succeed academically. They are sick and absent more often due to a lack of proper health care, or, they have parents that aren’t involved in their child’s education, some say. Fonseca says that’s garbage. Her students were mostly healthy and some had very involved parents, who were integral to their success. She thinks a significant part of the problem is society’s mindset, not the students’ economic situation. “We don’t express high expectations to students at lower socio-economic levels,” she says.  Adding to the problem, resources like afterschool programs and high-quality teaching support isn’t available in underfunded schools. Fonseca says schools also need great leaders who implement positive change, motivate a team of teachers, and hold students and teachers accountable.

Her experience is proof that all students, rich and poor, are capable of success. More than that, Fonseca says, all students, no matter what their circumstances, deserve a fair shot at success.

• • • • •

For more information about Teach For America, visit http://www.teachforamerica.org

To read more coverage about the 2008 Kupfer event, click here.

To read about Fonseca’s TFA experience, click here.