04/11/2016 05:23 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Long Game towards Opportunity for All in Houston


On Wednesday, March 30, Teach For America founder and Teach For All CEO Wendy Kopp spoke to over 650 people, including Teach For America corps members, alumni, staff, board members and other educational advocates and community supporters at a benefit gala celebrating 25 years of Teach For America in the Houston area. Thousands of Teach For America teachers, or corps members, have taught in Houston's lowest-income schools, reaching more than 150,000 students and becoming some of the region's most prominent leaders in education.

It's so great to be here with you all tonight to celebrate 25 years of Teach For America's contribution and impact and continuous learning here in the Houston area.

As most of you know, I'm now focusing the majority of my energy traveling around the world as the CEO of Teach For All, which supports independent organizations in 40 countries and growing that pursue the approach pioneered by Teach For America. But I had to come back to be with you all here in Houston tonight.

This is a landmark occasion especially because Houston has been so important in Teach For America's history--as one of our very first and historically largest placement sites. And Houston was the longtime host of our national training institute in Teach For America's first decade--before TFA began recruiting so many corps members that we couldn't train everyone in one place! For me, and for Teach For America, Houston feels like home.

I also had to be here in Houston because I wanted to thank all of you in person for your hard work and deep dedication to our mission. You have contributed so much, some of you for many years running, to strengthen and sustain our ability to broaden educational opportunities for students here. Thank you.

I remember so clearly coming to Houston in 1991 for an event that we held in conjunction with our launch here. Our supporters and friends were gathered in a beautiful home. There was lots of excitement about the fact that we were channeling some of our country's most outstanding and idealistic recent graduates into our highest-need classrooms. But I also remember some expressing deep skepticism that Teach For America could ever meaningfully contribute to fundamental progress in a system with deeply entrenched inequities that they felt was impervious to change.

Looking back, the people who predicted it would be tough to fundamentally change the system knew what they were talking about--the problem of the opportunity gap is so complex and so challenging.

And yet, the people of Teach For America, working alongside so many others similarly dedicated to providing all our kids with an excellent education, are making a fundamental difference in this community. This is because once our corps members started teaching, they fell in love with their students, and at the same time they became outraged--at the injustices their kids faced, at the challenges they endured, and the opportunities they would almost certainly miss out on. And because of that powerful mix of love and outrage, they found themselves committed to the long fight for a better future.

Today, there are 1,400 Teach For America alumni here in Houston. Amazingly, fully three quarters of them are still working full-time in education. And nine in ten continue to work in roles that help to improve education or strengthen low-income communities.

There hasn't been enough progress, but if you step back and consider where we were in 1991, it's clear how far forward we've traveled.

Today, there are dozens of schools putting children from Houston's lowest-income families--just one in ten of whom would typically attain a college degree--on a path to beating the national average in terms of college attainment.

Partly inspired by what these schools have shown is possible, and with the commitment and leadership of so many Teach for America alums, we're seeing a tremendous push for change within Houston's school systems more broadly--

Through the historic SKY partnership that is bringing the practices of high performing charter schools to the Spring Branch School District;

Through important, sustained efforts to build a strong human capital operation within the Houston Independent School District, which now aggressively recruits teachers and principals, selects them based on rigorous meritocratic standards, and prioritizes and invests in their development;

And through re-creating the science curriculum for the entire district and the state of Texas.

Not only that--today, more young people growing up in low-income communities have access the extra support they often need to stand on a level playing field in their pursuit of an excellent education.

We see this through the efforts of organizations like ProUnitas, which provides educational, health, and social services in the Kashmere Gardens area.

We see this through college access programs, such as DiscoverU and OneJump and EMERGE, which are providing students with the support they need to access, attend, and ultimately succeed in college.

We see this through initiatives like Houston's Neighborhood Centers, which combine the best parts of community centers with schools.

And we're seeing efforts to support families themselves, so that they are informed and empowered and, on behalf of their children, can demand--and receive--the excellent education they deserve.

Teach For America's people have contributed so much to these efforts, working alongside so many others--parents, veteran educators, school board members, community leaders. They are but one part of what has helped grow the opportunities available to children today in Houston, but they've contributed so much energy and leadership--

From Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg and Chris Barbic, who have done so much to fuel our collective sense of possibility through starting and building the KIPP and YES charter school networks;

To Sehba Ali who is leading KIPP Houston forward, along with the alumni who serve as 18 of their 24 school leaders and hundreds of their teachers;

To the YES network's current superintendent and the alumni who serve as 11 of their 15 principals;

To many alumni who have worked within HISD over the years to effect system-level change in teacher and principal development, as well as those who are taking the SKY partnership in Spring Branch forward;

To the alumni who serve as the leaders of the efforts I mentioned earlier to provide students with extra supports and empower families.

It is my sincerest hope, that as you reflect on the last 25 years of Teach For America in Houston, and on all that you and others in this community have invested in this city, you recognize and feel good about everything that has been accomplished, even as you feel a deep sense of urgency about what more needs to be done.

I've come to see this work of ours as the Long Game. Today, we live in a land where quick fixes are expected. But because the issue we're addressing is so complex, there is no quick fix.

There is a path to success--I see this constantly when I walk around schools that are experiencing transformative results, and visit communities--even whole countries--that are closing opportunity gaps.

But the only path is for many, many more of our most committed leaders to devote themselves to this work in all its complexity.

Because progress is such a Long Game, I feel so incredibly fortunate to have found my way to this work early enough in my life, and to have helped to enlist others, early in their careers--so that we can move the needle against this problem in a significant way, in our lifetimes.

I am so optimistic about the future here in Houston.

The foundation you're building on is so much stronger today than it was 25 years ago--with whole schools showing what is possible and much more functional talent development systems and a growing ecosystem of support for our most vulnerable children and a whole different level of community and parental engagement.

We've learned so much--about what's possible, and what it will take. And we have dozens and dozens of communities all across the country and all around the world as well that are themselves making significant progress in closing the opportunity gap that we can all learn from.

Thank you for all that you do. I can't wait to see where the next 25 years take us.