Teach for America founder prepares for MU commencement speech

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Wendy Kopp, founder and executive director of Teach for America, is this year's commencement speaker.

Twenty years ago this fall, a group of 500 college graduates took jobs teaching in areas with some of the largest racial and socioeconomic academic achievement gaps in the country — places like Los Angeles, New Orleans and rural North Carolina — as part of a new teaching corps called Teach for America, which focused on promoting educational equality for children in underfunded schools.

Because of her commitment to addressing injustice and providing passionate teachers to underprivileged children, Marquette invited Wendy Kopp, TFA’s founder and chief executive officer, to speak at the class of 2010’s commencement ceremony on May 23 at the Bradley Center.

Her desire to speak at Marquette stems from the university’s commitment to TFA’s success in Milwaukee, she said in an e-mail.

“(College of Education) Dean (William) Henk and the (College) of Education have been instrumental to our local efforts in Milwaukee,” Kopp said. Marquette and Cardinal Stritch University offer courses for corps members interested in pursuing a master’s degree in education.

University President the Rev. Robert A. Wild said in a press release that the decision to bring Kopp to Milwaukee was also based partly on the yearlong Centennial Celebration of Women at Marquette.

Kopp proposed TFA in 1989 as her Princeton University undergraduate thesis. While at Princeton, Kopp observed that she and her classmates had a drastically different set of study skills when they arrived on campus.

After some research, Kopp learned only half of America’s 14 million impoverished children graduated high school, and even those graduates only had the equivalent of an eighth-grade education.

“I could not believe that, in a country that aspires to be a land of equal opportunity, millions of kids were not receiving the chances they rightly deserved,” Kopp said.

Kopp knew many of her peers wanted to make a difference, so she decided to create a national teaching corps to pair America’s struggling schoolchildren with America’s next generation of ambitious schoolteachers.

College students, educators and financiers embraced the TFA concept, and Kopp’s ambition to have a starting corps of 500 members in 1990 came to fruition in six placement locations.

Since then, TFA has expanded into 38 locations from New Jersey to New Mexico. The 2009-’10 school year was the first for Milwaukee’s TFA branch.

The organization decided to come to Milwaukee because education leaders felt strongly that TFA could help close the well-documented racial achievement gap in Milwaukee Public Schools, Kopp said.

Tom Schalmo, a corps member who graduated from University of Wisconsin-Madison with a journalism degree, said helping to close the achievement gap in Milwaukee was one of the reasons he applied for TFA.

“TFA’s mission really fits in here,” he said. Schalmo is in his first year teaching sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students at Luther Burbank School, 6035 W. Adler St.

Martha Elson, another corps member and a Brookfield, Wis. native, teaches four-year-old kindergarten at Richard Kluge Elementary School, 5760 N. 67th St.

Elson, who graduated from Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass. last year with a double major in education and psychology, applied because she believed in the program’s mission and saw it as a way to give back to the community where she grew up.

“For corps members, it opens our eyes to issues we might not have considered otherwise,” Elson said.

Elson and Schalmo saw TFA as a new challenge to overcome, and both have taken positive things out of the experience.

“There’s joy in seeing our kids grow and improve in academics,” Schalmo said.

Kopp has not decided the specifics of her commencement speech, but said she “would like to encourage the class of 2010 to channel their talent and energy toward tackling some of the world’s biggest problems.”

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