Teach For America was founded in 1989 after a Princeton University student wrote her senior thesis about the educational achievement gap between students in high- and low-income areas.
She felt that current teacher recruitment programs were badly lacking the quality of applicants that the profession deserved.
The student was named Wendy Kopp. And in 17 years, she has turned this idea into a highly competitive national organization with nearly 9,000 alumni and about 3,000 current teachers.
As she writes in her book, "One Day, All Children","the organization was founded upon the mission that the corps would mobilize some of the most passionate, dedicated members of my generation to change the fact that where a child is born in the United States largely determines his or her chances in life."
Unlike most people, Kopp decided to take her thesis a step further: she would actually put her idea for a national teacher corps into action.
She estimated the entire project's start-up costs to be $2.5 million. At the urging of a professor, she contacted executives from several major corporations and asked for them to fund a seed grant. Shot down by almost all, she was finally offered a $26,000 grant from Mobil.
One of the toughest obstacles to overcome for Kopp and her new organization was the conventional belief that "teachers, just like doctors and lawyers, needed to be trained in campus-based graduate programs before entering the classroom."
Proving that recent college graduates from diverse non-education backgrounds could adequately teach kept her from securing one of her first $100,000 seed grants.
Teach For America's corps members are trained in rigorous 5-week "institutes," which resemble boot camps. They cram an entire education on teaching into 25 long school days. Within the first two days of being at institute, corps members are already expected to be teaching their students.
While at institute, the new teachers spend the entire school day at a local school, teaching summer school. After class, they meet on site for training sessions and workshops with their advisers. In the evenings they attend more workshops and lectures, and prepare their lessons for the next day.
Within a year of its conception, 500 corps members met in Los Angeles for the first Teach For America institute in 1990. These 500 original corps members went on to teaching positions in Georgia, Los Angeles, New Orleans, New York City, North Carolina and South Louisiana.
Unfortunately for the first teachers, the quality of their instruction was lacking. Without enough time to prepare a curriculum, TFA's organizers had only provided the veteran-teacher advisers with a list of key points, and left the instruction to the discretion of each individual.
In 1994 the institute moved to Houston, where Teach For America has stayed ever since. At this point, it was placing corps members in 14 different areas.
The original 500 corps members in 1990 had grown to 1,500 each year in 2000. In 2001, it secured more than $20 million in investments and was named one of the five organizations First Lady Laura Bush would support.
In 2002, more than 14,000 people applied for only 2,500 spots in that year's corps. The program had undoubtedly found its audience.
In 2004 and 2005, corps member applications peaked at more than 18,000 a year. Teach For America ran three institutes during summer 2005: Los Angeles, Houston and Philadelphia. Plans for next summer include opening institutes in Atlanta and New York City.
The organization plans to double the size of its corps within the next five years, giving even more children the opportunity to excel more and succeed.
"We should build public school systems that have the mission, resources and capacity to put children born into significant disadvantages on equal footing with other children," Kopp said in her book (178).