Schoolteacher Marva Collins's (born 1936) dedication to Chicago's Westside Preparatory School, which she opened in 1975, moved the producers of television's 60 Minutes to do a feature on her and inspired a made-for-TV film.
Teachers need nothing more than "books, a blackboard, and a pair of legs that will last the day," Marva Collins told Dan Hurley in 50 Plus magazine. These three things were essentially all that Collins had when she opened the Westside Preparatory School in Chicago, Illinois, in 1975 with the $5,000 she had contributed to her pension fund. Disillusioned after teaching in the public school system for 16 years, Collins decided to leave and open a school that would welcome students who had been rejected by other schools and labeled disruptive and "unteachable." She had seen too many children pass through an ineffective school system in which they were given impersonal teachers, some of whom came to school chemically impaired.
A firm believer in the value of a teacher's time spent with a student, Collins rejected the notion that the way to solve the problems faced by U.S. schools was to spend more money. Collins also shunned the audiovisual aids so common in other classrooms because she believed that they created an unnecessary distance between the teacher and the student. By offering a plethora of individual attention tempered with strict discipline and a focus on reading skills, Collins was able to raise the test scores of many students, who in turn went on to college and excelled. "It takes an investment of time to help your children mature and develop successfully," declared Collins in Ebony.
Indelible Impression Left by Father
Collins was born Marva Delores Nettles on August 31, 1936, in Monroeville, Alabama. Collins has described her childhood as "wonderful" and filled with material comforts that included riding in luxury cars and having her own horse. Her father, Alex Nettles, was a successful merchant, cattle buyer, and undertaker. He lavished attention and praise on his daughter and her younger sister, Cynthia. By challenging Collins to use her mind, he instilled in her a strong sense of pride and self-esteem.
"[My father] never presumed that any task was too challenging for me to try nor any concept too difficult for me to grasp," noted Collins in Ebony. "He gave me assignments that helped build my confidence and gave me a sense of responsibility." As a child, Collins managed the store's inventory, kept track of invoices, and deposited the store's money in the bank. From these early experiences, she developed the philosophy she would use later in life to teach children, one that entailed providing encouragement and positive reinforcement.
Collins attended Clark College in Atlanta, Georgia. After graduating in 1957 with a bachelor's degree in secretarial sciences, she returned to Alabama to teach typing, shorthand, bookkeeping, and business law at Monroe County Training School. Having never intended to be a teacher, she left the profession in 1959 to take a position as a medical secretary at Mount Sinai Hospital in Chicago. While in the city she met Clarence Collins, a draftsman, whom she married on September 2, 1960.
Left Teaching to Start Her Own School
In 1961 Collins returned to teaching as a full-time substitute in Chicago's inner-city schools because she missed helping youngsters discover the joy of learning. Working against a tide of indifferent teachers who, in Collins' words, were creating "more welfare recipients" soon left her weary and angry. With her pension money and the support of her husband, Collins opened the Westside Preparatory School in the basement of Daniel Hale Williams University.
Collins made a point of not accepting federal funds because she did not want to abide by all the regulations that such backing required. Craving more independence than she had in the university setting, Collins soon moved the school into the second floor of her home, which she and her husband had renovated to accommodate approximately twenty children ranging from four to fourteen years old. Located in one of Chicago's poorest neighborhoods, the school was eventually moved to its own building near Collins's home. Shortly after this move, enrollment increased to over two hundred students.
The Media Focus on Collins
Collins started attracting media attention in 1977 after an article on her and the Westside Preparatory School appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times. Several national publications printed her story, and she was featured on the popular television program 60 Minutes in an interview with Morley Safer. In 1981 CBS presented a Hallmark Hall of Fame special entitled The Marva Collins Story, starring Cicely Tyson.
Late in 1980 Collins was considered for the post of secretary of education by U.S. President Ronald Reagan. Preferring to continue teaching and running her school, Collins announced that she would not accept the position if it were offered to her. She believed that she could make a bigger difference by working with the children in Chicago than she could by immersing herself in the paperwork the job in Washington, D.C., would surely bring. The Chicago school board and the Los Angeles County school system also offered her positions. Again, she declined.
Collins's method of teaching, spelled out in her 1982 book Marva Collins' Way, provides students with a nurturing atmosphere in which they learn the basics—reading, math, and language skills. Gym class and recess are considered superfluous. When writing about Collins and her school, many journalists comment on the familiar sight of young children reading such classics as Aesop's Fables and works by William Shakespeare and Geoffrey Chaucer. Each day students write papers and memorize a quotation of their choice. In addition, they are expected to read a new book every two weeks and to report on it.
Collins guides all of this activity with a strong dose of love and personal concern for each student. Any child who has to be disciplined understands that it is the behavior, not the child himself, that is objectionable. In an interview in the Instructor, Collins pointed out that "teacher attitude is very important" and that she believed that the "children should be given a lot of my time."
Collins and School Criticized
In 1982, however, Collins was assailed by criticism from several fronts. Charges against her ranged from accepting federal funds—she had always adamantly claimed that she would not—to reports that she had exaggerated her students' test scores. An independent investigation revealed that Collins received $69,000 through the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA). Collins refuted these charges early in 1982 as a guest on the Phil Donahue Show, during which she claimed that the CETA money had come to her through a social services agency and that she had no idea the money had originated in Washington, D.C.
A majority of the parents of Westside's students rallied behind her, declaring that they were pleased with the work Collins was doing with their children. Support also came from Morley Safer who had stayed in contact with Collins after her appearance on 60 Minutes. In the March 8, 1982, issue of Newsweek, Safer was quoted as saying: "I'm convinced that Marva Collins is one hell of a teacher."
Kevin Ross, a former Creighton University basketball star, would no doubt agree with Safer. Ross came to the Westside Preparatory School in the fall of 1982 because he had not acquired basic education skills after four years of college. Working with Collins, Ross was able to double his reading and math scores and triple his language score within one school year.
Collins chose Ross to deliver the commencement address at Westside's eighth grade graduation. He was quoted in Newsweek as telling the graduating class to "learn, learn, and learn some more" so that the debate on the potential of inner-city school children would become "as obsolete as covered wagons on the expressway." Others also support Collins's work. She received donations from many individuals, most notably rock star Prince, who became cofounder and honorary chairman of Collins's National Teacher Training Institute, created so Collins could retrain teachers using her methodology.
Shortly before her 50th birthday, Collins was interviewed by 50 Plus magazine and was asked if she felt, after all the media hype, that she had passed her peak. She responded: "All of that means nothing, except what I get for the children. Those were fleeting moments. … Being a celebrity isn't important. It's what the children learn that's important." Material possessions are not what matters to Collins; what does matter is that she be remembered for her contribution to society. She expressed the fundamental purpose of her work when she told an Instructor correspondent, "I take the children no one else wants."
Further Reading on Marva Collins
American Spectator, April 1983.
Black Enterprise, June 1982.
California Review, April 1983.
Chicago Tribune Book World, October 31, 1982.
Christian Science Monitor, November 20, 1981; September 9, 1982.
Ebony, February 1985; August 1986; May 1990.
Essence, October 1981; November 1985.
50 Plus, June 1986.
Good Housekeeping, September 1978.
Harper's Bazaar, December 1981.
Instructor, January 1982.
Jet, November 6, 1980; October 4, 1982; February 7, 1983; July 29, 1985; August 10, 1987; August 1, 1988.
Life, spring 1990.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, December 12, 1982.
Newsweek, March 8, 1982; June 27, 1983.
New York Times, December 19, 1980; December 21, 1980;March 7, 1982; November 4, 1990.
People, December 11, 1978; February 21, 1983.
Saturday Review, April 14, 1979.
Time, December 26, 1977.
TV Guide, November 28, 1981.
Variety, June 18, 1986.
Wall Street Journal, March 15, 1981.
Washington Monthly, February 1980.
Washington Post Book World, November 14, 1982.