May 13, 2013
Teach For America used its annual New York City benefit last week to wade into the city’s political debate. Praising the Bloomberg administration’s education record, founder and board chair Wendy Kopp vowed that Teach For America and its supporters would fight to preserve the mayor’s education legacy after he leaves office at the end of the year.
“No matter who takes office,” Kopp said, “we are creating an unstoppable force.”
The remarks reflected Teach For America’s transition to playing a stronger role in public dialogue about education.
Kopp suggested that the organization would not throw its support behind a single candidate. “Progress isn’t a function of one leader,” Kopp said. Instead, she said, the educational change Teach For America supports requires “a constellation of committed souls.”
The strength of that constellation was on display at the nonprofit’s gala, held Wednesday at the glittering Waldorf Astoria hotel. In one night, the organization announced it raised $6.7 million, and speakers included Charlie Rose and Richard Parsons, the former CEO of Time Warner and Teach For America board member who also chairs Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Education Reform Commission.
A board member also announced the name of the organization’s new New York executive director, Charissa Fernandez. Currently the chief operating officer at The After School Corporation, an extended-day services provider and advocacy group based in Manhattan, Fernandez will begin in the role this summer, filling a position that has been vacant since Jeff Li announced he was leaving to return to the classroom last year. Fernandez said she had accepted the position just days earlier.
The evening, titled “Leadership Matters,” began with remarks from Department of Education Senior Deputy Chancellor Marc Sternberg, a Teach For America alumnus held up as a case study of the leaders the organization has produced here. A speaker also named a long list of alumni in leadership positions across the city, including De’Shawn Wright, deputy secretary of education to Cuomo and a 1998 New York City corps member and Matt Tepper, the campaign manager to Christine Quinn, the City Council speaker and mayoral frontrunner. Tepper joined Teach for America’s New York corps in 2004.
Chancellor Dennis Walcott and former chancellor Joel Klein also attended the event. Kopp thanked Klein for his support, noting that when she first approached him early in his tenure, he told her to come back once she had expanded the city’s Teach for America corps significantly. The number of city corps members reached more than 500 a year before the financial recession slashed the number of new teachers the city could hire.
In her remarks, Kopp, who is also a New York City public school parent, poked fun at what she called some “confusion” in the media about Bloomberg and Klein’s education record. (Local newspapers have said recently, for example, that the Common Core is raising standards where Bloomberg did not.) In fact, she said, the city’s schools have been transformed in the last decade. She described walking into large high schools years ago to find that only a third of students had shown up. Now, she said, the city’s schools are filled with teachers “on a mission” to help their students.
“Maybe someday we’ll see a New York Times article about all of this,” she said. “But for now, we’ll focus on the things we can control.”
When some members of the audience murmured in reply, Kopp smiled. “You can laugh,” she said.
Disclosure: GothamSchools’ board chair, Sue Lehmann, is a member of Teach For America’s national board.