WENDY KOPP is turning her undergraduate thesis into reality. Last year, as a senior at Princeton University, Ms. Kopp conceived a plan to draw graduates from some of the best liberal-arts colleges into teaching. Today, Kopp heads Teach for America, a private, nonprofit organization with 22 full-time staff members and representatives at 100 of the top colleges across the United States.
The goal: to recruit 500 graduating college students who will dedicate two years to teaching in public schools that are suffering from teacher shortages. Students with outstanding federal loans will be placed in low-income schools in order to take advantage of existing loan forgiveness and deferment provisions of the Higher Education Act amendments of 1985.
``We're a national teacher corps,'' says Kopp, ``and that's a unique concept in terms of actually recruiting people on a national scale to teach in the areas in which they're most needed.''
The response to Teach for America has been ``amazing,'' says Kopp. ``You can't really argue with a program that simply gets people who wouldn't have otherwise considered teaching to consider it,'' she says.
The first set of interviews, which were held recently at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., attracted 81 applicants. Six teams of two interviewers each are currently holding interviews on the 100 college campuses chosen as interview sites.
Kopp has raised about $800,000 - mostly from corporations. On the day of her college graduation she received a grant of $26,000 from Mobil Oil Co. This seed money allowed her to spend the summer laying the organization's groundwork. The operating budget for 1990 is $3 million. Although no federal funding has been received, she is exploring that possibility.
About 20 states now have alternative licensing programs that permit people without education degrees to teach in their public school systems. School districts interested in employing Teach for America participants agree to pay candidates regular first-year salaries (an average of $23,000) and to provide an experienced mentor for each new teacher.
Participants will serve in both inner-city and rural schools. Placement areas include: Los Angeles and outlying districts, Baton Rouge, La., New Orleans, Chicago, rural New Mexico, Georgia, and North Carolina.
``If we topped out and met the ceiling we've set,'' says Kopp, ``then it would be about 100 people in rural sites and about 400 in urban ones.''
Over the next decade, more than 200,000 new teachers will be needed each year in order to keep schools staffed, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Meanwhile, only 135,000 people are graduating from teacher training institutions each year, says Linda Darling-Hammond, professor of education at Columbia University in New York.
``The problem is how to very substantially increase the supply of people who want to teach and at the same time to upgrade the quality,'' says James Kelly, director of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Teach for America is targeting minority graduates and math and science majors because these are areas with the greatest deficit.
``I think they're trying to be sensitive to the need to attract persons of color and persons of different linguistic and cultural backgrounds,'' says Vito Perrone, director of the teacher education program at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.
Dr. Perrone is on the advisory committee designing a training program for Teach for America recruits. The eight-week training session will take place this summer in Los Angeles. The city's year-round school system will provide a chance for practical teaching experience.
``They will come in with eight very good weeks ... in thinking about issues of teaching and learning in schools,'' says Perrone. ``So in that sense they are in a much different place than persons who come in through most alternative route programs with no preparation at all.''
Kopp describes the training as a highly intensive program - 15 hours a day, six days a week. ``One concept that runs throughout is multiculturalism,'' she says. Many of the incoming teachers will be thrown into situations and cultures completely different from anything they have ever known before.
``There is a danger of students going into unfamiliar territory,'' says Linda Rottenberg, Teach for America representative at Harvard University. ``It will be difficult if you have some students from a fairly suburban, privileged background going into an inner-city school.''
Kopp acknowledges that some people are skeptical about these freshly graduated college students' ability to handle the tough issues that may well face them. ``There's always going to be skepticism; there's also a lot of enthusiasm,'' she says. ``It's by nature true that people will be skeptical about any new teacher.''
In addition to experienced mentors who will be provided by the school districts, Teach for America plans to establish regional offices to serve as support networks. These offices will provide general support and networking opportunities, help with housing, and guide participants in the process of full teacher certification.
``Of course, Teach for America hopes that after two years people will be interested in trying to get certification and continuing on,'' says Dan Butin, the organization's representative at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass.
Those who do not continue teaching and move on to other careers - in business, government, law - are expected to be advocates for educational improvement.
``People who come out of standard teacher education courses are not asked to give a two-year commitment; they're asked to give a one-year commitment,'' points out Mr. Kelly.
But Dr. Darling-Hammond views eight weeks of training as insufficient and says that similar initiatives started 20 years ago failed. ``The program structure allows them to make a contribution but very, very few of the new teachers stay,'' she says.
Nonetheless, the idealism behind Teach for America is apparent. The organization's red, white, and blue brochure boldly states: ``America Needs You.''
``It's clearly patriotic,'' says Ms. Rottenberg, ``It's Teach FOR America. It's trying to make America stronger.'' She speaks of education as a ``fundamental patriotic notion'' and the ``backbone of American society,'' and says she's convinced that her generation is turning away from materialism and selfishness.
``At least 80 percent of the student body here is involved in some public service activity,'' says Rottenberg, speaking about Harvard University. ``We know that one of the reasons we're here is because some teacher somewhere along the line inspired us. We feel that we've gotten the most out of the system and want to give something back.''