Israelis may shudder at the prospect of being called a frier (sucker), but Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp believes with the right encouragement, more and more Israeli college graduates can be convinced to give something back to their communities by teaching underprivileged pupils.

“I think that whatever the [economic] environment is all over the world, we are realizing that if you inform recent college grads of the nature of the problems and the disparities that exist in education, and call upon them [to help], they’ll think, what better way to make a huge impact straight out of college,” she said on Monday.

Kopp is in Israel for three days as part of a tour of countries that have adopted Teach for America’s international version, “Teach for All.”

The Israeli version, “Hotem – Teach First Israel,” was founded in 2010 and today includes 143 teachers working in disadvantaged schools across the periphery. The program hopes to recruit an additional 123 teachers for the 2012-2013 school year.

Launched through a partnership with the Education Ministry, JDC-Israel, Ha-Kol Hinuch and the Naomi Foundation, the organization aims to improve the educational disparity in Israel along socioeconomic lines, and reverse the decline in the number of university graduates pursuing a career as teachers.

A native of the upscale Dallas neighborhood of Highland Park, Kopp said that while she grew up in a middle-class household, she was never quite aware of how students’ socioeconomic backgrounds affected academic achievement.

When she enrolled in Princeton University, however, she began to learn more about how deep these disparities are in the United States, largely through hearing about the experiences of her roommate, who was from the impoverished South Bronx in New York City.

In 1989, Kopp wrote in her undergraduate thesis about her idea of creating a teacher corps to recruit recent college graduates.

Shortly thereafter, Teach for America was born, and today, around 5,000 recruits a year sign on for two years of service teaching in impoverished rural and urban school systems in the United States.

“When I was a senior I just thought one day, why aren’t we talented Liberal Arts graduates being recruited as much to be teachers in our inner city communities as we are to work on Wall Street,” Kopp said.

Though it may sound counter-intuitive, Kopp said the current global economic crisis had not necessarily encouraged more students to eschew the financial industry for jobs in education, and that many are in fact feeling more pressure than ever to take job opportunities that present themselves right out of college and not spend two years working to right America’s educational woes.

“You see reverse trends from what you’d think. People start thinking if I get this offer to get into a corporate program, I should take it because maybe the world will fall apart in two years, whereas when the economy is good, people think I can follow my passion and then will just get the job later. We’re seeing lots of risk aversion on the US campuses now.”

Kopp says Teach for America was trying to expand its program to bring in around 10,000 recruits per year, but that it was hard to find people who were ready to be teachers straight out of college.

The program has been criticized by some who say it replaces experienced teachers with lower-paid beginners thrust into some of the US’s most disadvantaged school districts.

Nonetheless, she said Teach for America was one of the factors that had brought a great deal of improvement to the American school system over the past 20 years.

She also related how in her travels to countries where Teach for All is being implemented, including Lebanon and Pakistan earlier this month, she was struck by how universal the relation between poverty and education was.

“If you’re a kid who is growing up in poverty and going to a school that isn’t designed to meet your needs, your inequality looks so similar from place to place. The fact that the problem is so similar means the solution will be sharable,” she said.

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