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Teacher Corps Alumni Reflect on the Past, Plan for the Future

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Washington

The first Teach for America "alumni summit" was part reunion, part teach-in, and part serve-a-thon. And Wendy Kopp, the group's founder, hoped it was all inspiration.

About 300 former TFA participants gathered here over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend to catch up with old friends, learn about new trends in education, and spruce up two area elementary schools.

Ms. Kopp, who sketched the blueprint for the privately organized national teacher corps while in her senior year at Princeton University in 1989, said she saw the weekend as an opportunity to reconnect with TFA alumni and solicit their continued support.

"We have always hoped and felt that our corps members would, after their two-year commitment, continue working toward educational excellence and equity," Ms. Kopp said last week in a telephone interview.

"Personally, I was so inspired to talk to so many of them, who--whether or not they remained in the field of education--are working to improve the quality of life in under-resourced communities and are clearly so shaped by their teaching experience," she said.

Since 1989, Ms. Kopp has raised about $22 million for TFA The New York City-based corps recruits graduates from top colleges, introduces them to fundamentals of teaching during an eight-week summer training program, and places them for two years in schools in high-poverty areas.

There have been five classes of corps members to date, most with about 500 members.

Of the 1,300 who have completed the program, 47 percent are teaching, and 18 percent are working in education-related fields or enrolled in graduate study in education.

A Critical Time

Several TFA alumni who attended the summit at George Washington University here said the gathering came at a critical juncture in the corps's five-year history. Some expressed concern that because TFA is no longer new, private funders may look to invest in other, less established social programs.

And TFA recently was criticized in the pages of the journal Phi Delta Kappan by Linda Darling-Hammond, a prominent education professor at Teachers College, Columbia University. She argued that the corps members' training is inadequate and that young, inexperienced teachers should not be dispatched to schools with the greatest problems and the least resources. (See Education Week, 11/09/94.)

But in a speech at the conference, former U.S. Sen. Harris Wofford of Pennsylvania, offered strong words of support.

"The people here represent so much of what I believe in and so much of what this country needs," said Mr. Wofford, who has been a strong advocate of national service.

In an interview after his speech, Mr. Wofford praised Ms. Kopp for organizing the gathering. He suggested that similar efforts to capitalize on the collective skills and talents of corps alumni might help TFA.

Encouraging Action

Mr. Wofford's speech followed a panel discussion by young "social entrepreneurs"--among them Alan Khazei, the 33-year-old founder of City Year, the Boston volunteer corps often cited as a model for President Clinton's national-service plan.

Mr. Khazei said he initially had advised Ms. Kopp to start small--limiting the teacher corps to 50 participants and one place, such as New York City. But instead, he recalled, she launched Teach for America nationally with 500 charter members.

Mr. Khazei encouraged the alumni to take similar bold steps to start their own nonprofit groups or partnerships.

"People don't want to believe that young people can make a difference," he told them. "But you'll be able to tell your grandchildren that you were part of the post-Cold War generation that got involved in the battle between idealism and cynicism."

One former corps member, who is now studying clinical psychology, said she was inspired by the panelists and by her conversations with fellow alumni.

"I really enjoyed my Teach for America experience, and I've had this hunger inside to reconnect with people who are concerned about social action," said Jennifer Newkirk, who taught English at a high school in Lynwood, Calif.

Ms. Kopp said she hoped to make the summit an annual event. In addition, TFA alumni are organizing local chapters in areas where there is a "critical mass" of former corps members.

Over the coming year, Ms. Kopp added, the national organization plans to create a more formal structure to encourage alumni participation.

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