There’s a new civil rights movement underway, said Wendy Kopp, president and founder of Teach For America.

Sarah Royce
Wendy Kopp

It has nothing to do with equal voting rights, sit-ins or marches on Washington.

Instead, Kopp said she believes the most pressing civil rights issue is closing the achievement gap in education between children of different socioeconomic backgrounds. Kopp, who will speak today in the Michigan League at 4 p.m. about her experience starting the organization, said 13 million children grow up in poverty in America and only about half of those children receive a high school diploma. Those that graduate perform, on average, at the eighth grade level.

Since 1999, the University has been the largest provider of new Teach For America Corps members. Last year, more than 250 University graduates applied to the organization and 48 were accepted.

“I think that University of Michigan students are particularly aware of the social issues affecting our country,” said Jonathan Gleicher, a University alum and Teach For America’s recruitment director in Michigan. “They know that educational inequity is our country’s most pressing social issue, and they want to be part of the solution.”

Kopp started Teach For America in 1990 in hopes of closing the achievement gap. The non-profit organization places recent college graduates in low-income communities in places like New Orleans, Baltimore and New York City, where they teach in public K-12 schools for two years. A major or background in education is not necessary, Kopp said.

“There are some kids who are growing up facing all the challenges of poverty, who are often going to schools that do not meet their needs in facing a level playing field,” Kopp said. “Kids of color in low-income communities can excel and do excel when given the opportunities.”

University students have been making their own improvements within urban classrooms.

When Cheryl Bratt, first-year law student at the University Law School and University alum, began teaching eighth grade English in New Orleans, students were only at a fourth grade reading level.

“My goal was to get my kids to learn Shakespeare at the end of the year,” she said.

To help them, she asked her students to rewrite Romeo And Juliet into their own words.

“We held auditions,” she said. “They tried out for the new form that they had written. To see my kids on stage where they had internalized Shakespeare was the highlight of my experience.”

University alum Maggie Weston taught English to Baltimore high school students capable of a fifth or sixth grade writing level.

Weston said her most fulfilling moment was helping a senior, in the school’s special education program writing at a second grade level, complete a 10-page research paper.

“(The student) had a really hard time in my class,” Weston said. “He wrote the 10-page paper. We had a celebration for him because he had done it. You could tell that he was really proud of himself.”

Weston also tried help students identify with the material by using rap songs to teach poetry.

Despite these triumphs, Bratt and Weston had to learn to deal with the struggles along the way.

Weston frequently found herself buying basic school supplies like printer paper, rulers and markers for the classroom out of her own pocket. She also faced a 60 percent daily attendance rate. By the end of the year, she was able to raise attendance to 75 percent by calling parents and using incentives like certificates for good attendance and “scholar of the week” awards.

For Bratt, lack of student motivation was a formidable force.

“One of the biggest challenges I faced was literally getting my students to believe that they could achieve,” Bratt said in an e-mail interview. “I think when they realized that they weren’t going to run me out of the classroom and that I wasn’t going to change my tune about their ability to learn, they started to come around.”

Bratt said that though it was one of the most difficult experiences in her life, it was well worth it.

“My kids grew two grade levels in one year,” she said. “To see that it’s actually possible to close the achievement gap was inspiring.”

The message that closing the achievement gap is possible is one that Kopp said she plans to deliver to college campuses across the country.

“Years and years of effort have led to a situation where we are actually on the brink of making dramatic process of closing the achievement gap,” Kopp said. “I hope that the college seniors who are out there and who want to make our country better will think about immersing themselves in the center of that revolution.”

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