Marva Collins

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Marva Collins was a teacher who founded Westside Preparatory Academy, a school on Chicago’s South Side, where she developed and used an innovative teaching method called the Collins Method. She was committed to providing educational opportunities for poor, African American students.

Born in 1936 in Alabama, she grew up in the segregated south with parents who had high expectations for her and her sister. She attended a one-room school in her small Alabama town, and then graduated from Clark College in Atlanta. She returned to Alabama after college and became a teacher.  She soon moved to Chicago where she met and married her husband and had 3 children.

For nearly 14 years, she was a full-time substitute teacher in Chicago schools. She became discouraged with the educational system and believed it was failing some students. In 1975, she withdrew $5000 from her own retirement account and opened the Westside Preparatory School in her own home in the Garfield Park neighborhood of Chicago. She started with only four students, but her enrollment grew quickly to over 200 and the school moved in to a building on Chicago’s South Side. She accepted students who did not thrive in the traditional school system, particularly students who had been labeled as “learning disabled” by the Chicago school system. She once said “If Abraham Lincoln were enrolled in public schools today, he would probably be in a learning disability program. Lincoln didn’t learn to read until age 14. No one should rule any child out of the educational picture.”

The Collins Method—as her approach came to be known—focused on the basics like reading and math, using the classics as the materials, including, for example, Homer, Plato, Chaucer, and Tolstoy. She used a modified version of the Socratic teaching method. She had high expectations for her students that they lived up to. She said, “kids don’t fail. Teachers fail. School systems fail. The people who teach children that they are failures—they are the problem.” The students in her school thrived, and all of her students’ test scores increased above what they had been at previous schools.

She received many awards and recognitions. President Reagan recognized her work related to adult literacy, and President Bush gave her the National Humanities Medal in 2004.  Both presidents also asked her to serve as Secretary of Education, but she declined both times, preferring to continue to work at her school. A 1981 TV movie called “The Marva Collins Story” was made about her and her school, starring Cicely Tyson and Morgan Freeman.

Although her school closed in 2008, the impact she made lives on through the accomplishments of her students, who have become doctors, lawyers, teachers, among other careers.

She died in 2015 at age 78. Her New York Times obituary ended like this: “All she wanted, she [said] in 2007, was ‘to be able to say I got an A-plus on the assignment God gave me.’”

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