Teach for America’s Most Influential Alumni

Ahead of Teach for America's 20th-anniversary alumni summit in February, a look at the influentials who have emerged from the ranks of TFA vets.

By now, the story is familiar: Wendy Kopp dreamed up Teach for America for her Princeton senior thesis and then raised $2.5 million to launch the program in 1990. The first class of 500 rookies teaching in low income areas seeded an alumni network that's now more than 20,000 strong. While critics argue that two-year stints aren't long enough for idealistic young adults to have a real effect before heading off to, say, law school, nearly two-thirds of TFA alums remain in education, half of those as classroom teachers. In this, the 20th year of a program that has taught more than 3 million kids, we look at the careers of 19 Teach for America veterans. Some are now recognized education rock stars; others support the cause in more subtle ways.

Sheila Kannappan
Eastern North Carolina '91

Kannappan, an assistant professor of astrophysics at the University of North Carolina, says that her TFA time teaching ninth-grade physical science in North Carolina helped convince the Harvard physics department to allow her to develop an undergraduate tutorial and a mentoring program for women while she was pursuing her PhD. She's now working with TFA to develop an astronomy curriculum for underserved schools.

Andrew Greenhill
Houston '91

Teaching English as a second language to Houston middle schoolers helped to prepare Greenhill, a Vassar grad, for his current role as chief of staff to the mayor of Tucson, Arizona, which is more than a third Hispanic. (See iCitizen)

Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin
Houston '92

After teaching in Houston, Feinberg and Levin launched KIPP: Knowledge Is Power Program, a network of charter schools meant to prepare any kid, regardless of prior academics or conduct, for college.Nationwide, there are now 99 KIPP academies, each a partnership among students, teachers, parents, and staff designed to prioritize learning and maximize classroom time. (The L.A. school was featured in the recent documentary Waiting for Superman.)Feinberg runs KIPP Houston; Levin, KIPP New York.

Michelle Rhee Baltimore '92 and Kaya Henderson New York '92

Rhee, the former chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public schools, and Henderson, her ex-deputy and interim replacement, have pushed aggressive data-driven ed-reform policies that include increasing teacher pay and performance-based compensation, closing low-enrollment schools, and firing underperforming teachers and principals. Both are veterans of the New Teacher Project — Rhee was the founding CEO and Henderson a VP — which recruits and trains educators for the hardest-to-staff urban and low-income schools.

Sarah Usdin
South Louisiana '92

Usdin has about two decades of experience in education, including teaching on a Fulbright scholarship in Germany, three years in Baton Rouge classrooms, and a stint as Teach for America's Louisiana executive director. After Hurricane Katrina, the Colgate University alumna founded New Schools for New Orleans, a not-for-profit committed to improving public schools, launching open-enrollment charter schools, and training teachers.

Sekou Biddle
New York '93

A member of the Washington, D.C., Board of Education, Biddle is an executive director of Jumpstart, which pairs college students and other volunteers with preschool students for a year of mentoring. A former classroom teacher in New York (with TFA), Atlanta, and D.C., the Morehouse grad is also an advocate of youth baseball in the nation's capital.

Smokey Fontaine
Baltimore '93

After doing a TFA stint in Baltimore schools, Fontaine worked for the magazines Vibe and The Source. The author of two books about music, he's now the editor-in-chief of Giant magazine and the chief content officer for Interactive One, the largest African-American digital portal, which includes popular websites BlackPlanet.com and TheUrbanDaily.com.

Tom Stritikus
Baltimore '93

The new dean of the University of Washington College of Education, Stritikus is the first TFA alumnus to run an ed school. The author of a book on immigrant children and the politics of English-only policies in the classroom, he studies bilingual education and has pushed for reforms in both policy and practice. In line with his thinking that teachers in training should see kids in broader cultural contexts, education students at UW work with minority organizations such as El Centro de la Raza and the Vietnamese Friendship House.

Nicholas Bernstein
Baltimore '95

A TFA legacy member, Bernstein followed his brother into the corps, teaching eighth-grade science in Baltimore. Afterward, he earned a PhD in aerospace engineering — yes, he's a rocket scientist. Today, he creates surgical simulators for medical schools and residency programs, building in part, he says, on the skills he learned to help students grasp advanced concepts.

Avi Cover
D.C. '96

Cover directs the Urban Revitalization Program at Seton Hall University's Center for Social Justice, teaching law students how to alleviate poverty through the legal system. He has also worked on several significant cases involving education financing, including M.A. v. Newark Public Schools, a case now in federal court; Cover is representing Newark special-ed students who say they haven't gotten adequate teaching.

Jason Kamras
D.C. '96

Kamras was named National Teacher of the Year in 2005 for his work at D.C.'s John Philip Sousa Middle School. In one year, he helped generate a 40% drop in the number of students scoring below proficiency on a standardized math test by doubling the time all kids spent in math class and creating new, more accessible curricula that included using photography to teach calculation skills. He is now director of human-capital strategy for D.C. Public Schools.

Michael Johnston
Mississippi Delta '97

The author of the TFA memoir In the Deep Heart's Core, Johnston is now a Colorado state senator. He advised Barack Obama on education during the 2008 campaign and served as principal of two alternative schools for children in state custody. He also cofounded New Leaders for New Schools, a nationwide principal-training not-for-profit.

Zeke Vanderhoek
New York '98

After noting how high salaries improved the quality of instruction at his GMAT-prep firm, Vanderhoek conceived the Equity Project (TEP), a charter school that pays teachers $125,000 per year — nearly double the average N.Y.C. public-schoolteacher salary — plus a possible bonus based on schoolwide results. The Manhattan middle school relies on public funds for everything but its facilities, cutting costs by eliminating admin positions and increasing class size. TEP teachers have moved from all over the United States for their jobs; Kobe Bryant's former trainer is a gym instructor.

Eric Thomas
Baltimore '99

Thomas is the founding principal of Rauner College Prep in Chicago, part of the super-rigorous Noble Street Charter School network. Thomas did his TFA stint in Baltimore; one of his students there recently joined TFA herself, citing him as her inspiration for making it to college.

Chris Leone
Baltimore '00

The superintendent of the Torrington, Connecticut, public schools previously served as the director of the Regional School Choice Office in Hartford, Connecticut. He helped set up that office in response to the Connecticut State Supreme Court's landmark Sheff v. O'Neill decision, which mandated equal access to public education regardless of town boundaries or race.

Tim Morehouse
New York '00

Ranked in the world's top 10 of fencing, Morehouse took the silver in men's sabre at the Beijing Olympics. He taught social studies to seventh graders for three years with TFA while moonlighting as a fencing teacher at his high-school alma mater in the Bronx. He's now in training for the 2012 Olympics in London.

Jesse Olsen
New York '06

When he realized there was no way to accurately track attendance at the high school where he was teaching in the Bronx, Olsen became a software engineer. The University of Portland grad built an online system to follow students' attendance, grades, and behavior class by class. So far, he has sold the program, called Impact, to 21 New York City public schools — at $10 to $25 per student — and, of course, to Teach for America.

See more of Michelle Rhee at Innovation Uncensored 2011.

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3 Comments

  • JA

    These "graduates" of TFA may be influential, but how many are still teaching? It is impossible to learn all one can about best practices in just 2 years, the average stint of many TFA participants. Quality teachers are continually learning for many years and with collaboration with peers the learning keeps increasing. Students, parents, and teachers in schools are a special community and continual turnover does not contribute to that community. The best teachers I know are continually learning and improving from year to year. Each year presents a new set of students and challenges and those who are truly invested in educating students rise to learn more and improve every year, for the benefit of students, parents, and their school community.

  • Red Eirneg

    Teach for America has great promise at attracting bright ambitious individuals into the profession, but many treat it as a Peace Corps experience that looks good on resumes or graduate school applications, and no one I know is boasting about the retention rates of Teach for America participants. Your article suggests that Teach for America has used schools and tax dollars to train highly effective leaders for the non-profit and business world.

    Those who stick with teaching continue to excel as dynamic, innovative teachers, but many burn out and many, many more go in to a more relaxed, higher-paying job or back to school. I'm not sure I want to treat the teaching profession like a four-year tour in the military, but maybe that holds promise. Most teachers I know will tell you they learned more about their subject in their first three years of teaching than in their undergraduate and graduate experiences combined! To leave so soon thereafter seems like a lost investment for schools in developing talent, knowledge, wisdom, innovation and creativity.