Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp spoke at an intimate gathering of students Wednesday evening about the importance of transformative leadership in education.
Kopp, who serves as CEO of Teach for All, the global offshoot of TFA, said many schools today are ill-equipped to address the needs of the most at-risk students.
“We are sending students who we know need more to schools that have less,” she said.
The organization places college graduates in low income communities throughout the country to serve as teachers. Kopp spoke about the genesis of TFA, an idea she created for her senior thesis while at Princeton University in 1989.
Kopp said when she was in college she saw that liberal arts graduates in particular were being recruited by large investment firms offering good money and only asking for a two-year commitment, but she felt many students were taking the corporate path because of a lack of other meaningful options available to them.
“What I hoped for then, and what I still hope for, is that graduates of our most selective educational institutions can channel their energy into expanding opportunity for those most in need,” Kopp said. “The most fulfilled people I know have made the choice to be in this arena.”
Among those in attendance was former TFA teacher Avery Seretan, who is currently a second-year master’s of public policy student. Seretan continues to work at Alliance Cindy & Bill Simon Technology Academy High School in Watts, where she served during her tenure with TFA. She said she came to the event to meet Kopp but also to be a resource for students contemplating participation in TFA.
“I’m excited to see new Trojans and interact with people who are excited and passionate about education,” Seretan said.
But, in recent years, the number of USC students applying for TFA positions has declined drastically. TFA recruitment manager Chrystal Gaither said last year TFA accepted 56 applicants from USC compared to 96 applicants in 2013.
Applications and enrollment in TFA nationwide have decreased significantly in the past five years. Kopp said the organization placed 4,200 teachers across the country last year, compared to 6,000 the previous year.
Lida Jennings, executive director of TFA Los Angeles, said the decrease in applications is likely due at least in part to the economic recovery. She said applications reached a high point following the 2008 economic crisis. Currently there are 180 corps members serving as teachers in Los Angeles, which is home to the nation’s second-largest school district.
“I have requests for, and I could place 2.5 times as many teachers as we have right now,” Jennings said.
But the program is still selective, with an average national acceptance rate of 18 percent, and the application process will not become any less competitive to respond to increased need. Jennings said recruiting the most qualified leaders and teachers is still the foremost concern of the organization, which is part of the reason she wanted to bring Kopp to USC to speak directly with students.
“Social leadership is pervasive here at USC,” said Jennings, a USC alumna who previously worked at the Marshall School of Business. “There is a deep appreciation for community at this university. We’ve hit the jackpot if we can harness these hearts and souls into long-term educational leadership.”
Adlai Wertman, professor of clinical entrepreneurship and founding director of the Brittingham Social Enterprise Lab, led the conversation with Kopp, which in part reflected on the organization’s 25th anniversary.
“We have to look at what [Kopp’s] generation did and how this generation can build on it,” Wertman said.
One student at the event is hoping to do just that. Samantha Jacobs, a senior majoring in public relations and English, was accepted into TFA and will begin her training this June for job placement in Philadelphia.
“I’m really passionate about bridging the equality gap in education, and I can’t think of a better place to start than Teach for America,” Jacobs said. “These kids need that leadership. They need that example, and they need us to take the reins.”
Lauren O’Neil, a senior majoring in business administration major, is still waiting to hear whether or not she has been accepted into the program but she said seeing Kopp speak cemented her desire to be involved in working with students.
“Seeing such an incredible founder taking time to speak with students demonstrates how important she believes we all can be and how much we can have a meaningful impact,” O’Neil said.