Since 1991, Teach for America been fighting for educational equality. Fifth grade teacher Grace Bahk is one out of thousands of new teachers recruited into this movement.
It's only her second year in the trenches of urban education, but Bahk is part of some special forces.
"We go through some really intensive training before we start our first year,” Bahk said. “We get tremendous support from staff, from developers. Just being in a community of people, who are aligned to the same mission, is extraordinary."
Wendy Kopp is the founder of Teach for America, or TFA.
“Today the question is very different than it was, say 20 years ago, when I got into this,” Kopp said. “We were asking ourselves, can we give kids an education that would overcome poverty?”
“Today we know it is possible, and the question is: How do we create whole systems full of schools that provide that kind of an education?"
Lessons from her life's work are now bound in a new book, just as a new urgency is taking hold about public schools.
“If we don't think we have a problem then incremental change is ok,” Kopp said. “But in a world where we're graduating more low-income kids into the prison system than into college, we have a serious problem.”
According to Kopp, the good news is that there are now hundreds of schools which have proved that poverty does not have to mean failure.
“In order to reach that goal, you realize, ‘Gosh our kids face so many extra challenges,’” Kopp said. “Clearly we're going to have to provide them with extra support, extra time.”
“Then we need to empower them - give them both the accountability and responsibility,” Kopp explained. “But also the flexibility to do whatever it takes to build the high performing teams and the powerful cultures and the extended school days and whatever it takes the meet the needs of kids.”
Kopp started TFA 20 years ago in New York City. Ten years later, it reached Chicago.
The big school system failing most of its students in this city fit the mission: recruit top college grads to work in bottom performing schools in urban and rural communities.
They don’t make much money, but they make an impact.
TFA alum and Muchin College Prep principal Kimberly Neal said, “The goal is that we take what we know, learn as much as we can, become leaders and do what we can to change education for all kids.”
Neal turned down a corporate job offer out of college to teach for TFA. Today, she's principal of Muchin, a Chicago charter school.
In fact, 20 percent of the charter school principals in Chicago are Teach for America alumni. It has become a rather prestigious pipeline.
While believing that great teachers and school leaders are a must for student success, Teach for America also has high expectations for the students themselves.
"I have really pushed students to understand the importance of community, and they teach me all the time,” Bahk said. “They blow me away the way they help each other, and they understand each other, and they show empathy.”
“I think we are so united this year in this mission to go to college and to repair the world. They know that we're kind of on the same side in order for them to succeed."