MPT profiles an idealist in the school system


If America's schoolchildren need a role model, someone a bit more admirable than Jose Canseco or Madonna, they would have to look hard to find anyone better than Wendy Kopp.

This 1989 Princeton graduate proves that it's possible to make your dreams come true, to achieve your personal goals, but doing that by helping others. And the people she's helping are . . . America's schoolchildren.

"Who Will Teach for America?" tells the story of Kopp and her teaching Peace Corps. The hour-long documentary will be on Maryland Public Television tonight at 10 o'clock, the first night of three evenings of back-to-school programming focusing on education. According to this moving, inspirational program, Kopp initially expressed her idea in a senior thesis at Princeton. She wanted to get graduates of the nation's top colleges -- those who planned to go on to careers in law, medicine, business and other fields -- to sign up for two years of teaching. They would be assigned to inner cities and rural areas where shortages of teachers and money are common.

Nice idea. Most people would have taken whatever grade the thesis earned and left it behind in school, while heading off for a career in medicine, law or whatever. Not Kopp. She started raising money from corporations and foundations. She started recruiting students under the banner of Teach for America.

A year later, this 23-year-old was running an eight-week crash course in teaching for 500 top college graduates on the campus of the University of Southern California. They were preparing for assignments in Los Angeles, New York, Louisiana, Georgia and North Carolina.

"Who Will Teach for America?" follows several members of this first class and Kopp as her idea gains momentum and national recognition, but as she still struggles for the grants needed to keep it going.

She's a remarkably poised, level-headed woman, determined to tap into an often overlooked reservoir of altruism in a generation of students seen as selfish, greedy and money-oriented.

And the graduates followed by the documentary's cameras are some of the most impressive people you're ever liable to meet. They come from a variety of schools -- Harvard, Yale, M.I.T., William and Mary, University of Wisconsin and others -- and approach Teach for America with a variety of motivations.

Some want to do their service and then get on with their careers. Others want to try out teaching as a possible career. Others just seem to be interested and curious about the experience they will have.

And quite an experience it turns out to be. Many were shocked by the lack of discipline and preparation of their students. They came to be glad for tiny victories, say 10 minutes without chaos in the classroom. And almost all of them, even as they faced up to the deteriorating condition of the education system, found themselves in the midst of financial crises as politicians refused to raise taxes to balance school budgets.

As you watch "Who Will Teach for America?" you can see Kopp's vision turn into reality. Not only has she exposed elementary and high school students to some of the best minds of her generation -- the type of people, statistics show, who do not major in education, who do not plan on teaching as a career -- but she also exposed these top college graduates to a world most of them had never encountered and to a profession many had never considered.

A great deal of learning went on on both sides of these teachers' desks. At the end of the year, many of the teachers are discouraged at what a huge task they face and what a small amount they are able to do. But those early recruits in the Peace Corps must have felt the same way. Teach for America comes off as a very important first step in a journey of a million miles.

"Who Will Teach for America?" will be preceded tonight at 9 o'clock by a repeat of "Making the Grade," an hour-long MPT production about several educational programs that are working in various Maryland jurisdictions.

Tomorrow night, Jaime Escalante, the teacher who was the subject of the movie "Stand and Deliver," hosts "Math: Who Needs It?" an hour that explains the need for this subject many see as irrelevant. That will be followed by three repeats -- Roger Mudd's "Schools that Work" at 9 o'clock; "Children in the Shadows," an hour discussion on programs to address some of the education system's most difficult problems, at 11 p.m.; and, at midnight, "Why do These Kids Love School?" an hour profiling nine American schools with innovative programs that students are responding to.

Thursday night is the now-annual "Project Reach Out," a telethon to recruit volunteers to work in public schools. Ben Vereen in this year's host.

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