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'Teach For America' strives for educational equality

Story Highlights

• Program founded in 1989 to be an educational version of the Peace Corps
• Applicants pledge two years as a teacher, but don't have to have education degree
• Many former program members continue to work in education
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(CNN) -- This year, 18,000 of America's top college graduates competed for spots teaching in some of the poorest areas of the United States.

Only one in six will be picked for the Teach For America program, which is trying to bring educational equality to struggling school districts.

"Our country aspires so admirably to be a place of equal opportunity and yet where you are born still in our country does so much to determine your educational prospects," says 39-year-old Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach For America.

Her immediate goal is to place the nation's top college graduates in 26 of the nation's poorest public school systems. Her secondary goal is to grow by extending it to serve many more communities.

Teach For America recruits people of all academic majors, with widely different career interests, who sign up to teach for two years. After that, most stay in education, and others try to effect changes in educational programs through community leadership, Kopp says.

According to the Teach For America Web site, only half of the 13 million children growing up in poverty graduate from high school.

"What makes it so unconscionable is the knowledge -- and we see this everyday in the communities where we work -- that when kids in rural and urban areas are given the opportunity they deserve, they excel," Kopp tells CNN.

Kopp dreamed up the idea for Teach For America while planning her senior thesis at Princeton in 1989. She tells CNN she was so enthusiastic about her plan she wrote a letter to President Bush calling for him to take her proposal and make the organization the Peace Corps of the 1990s.

But the letter apparently ended up in the wrong White House office.

"I got a job rejection," she says.

That only inspired her to work harder. She found government grants and chased large companies for donations. Initially she was able to place 500 teachers.

In the program's 18 years, more than 14,000 people have joined TFA and about two-thirds are still full-time teachers or involved in education.

Kopp says she is inspired by the number of "alumni" who are taking leadership positions "in the broader effort to expand educational opportunity."

Things have not always been good at Teach For America. In an article in the November 27 issue of Fortune magazine, Kopp described the hard times after the initial seed money ran out. But in 2000, Gap founder Don Fisher gave TFA an $8.3 million grant (contingent on it being matched). Between other heavy hitting investors and more fundraising TFA raised nearly $17 million more, according to the Fortune article.

Also, federal support recently has grown, thanks in part to help from first lady Laura Bush.

Nicole Hallarman, a history major who graduated from Yale, tells CNN she was inspired to join Teach For America after reading Kopp's book, "One Day, All Children: The Unlikely Triumph of Teach For America and What I Learned Along The Way."

Hallarman says she wants to see test scores improve at the school she will work at in the Atlanta, Georgia, area. She said she plans to continue in education after her two-year commitment is up.

"I want my first-graders to be the best first-graders my school has seen."

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Wendy Kopp began Teach For America after getting the idea for her senior thesis in 1989.

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