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Marva Collins is a pioneering school founder and education activist whose methods have transformed the lives of thousands of students.
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Born in Monroeville, Alabama on August 31, 1936, Marva Collins became one of the most influential teachers and education activists of the 20th century. Working to gain equal access to quality education for African-American students, she started her own school in Chicago and founded a style of education that came to be known as the Collins Method.
Kids don't fail. Teachers fail, school systems fail. The people who teach children that they are failures, they are the problem.
"Values can be replicated, excellence can be replicated, but it has to begin with the idea that everything is about me, not the other person, and about being proud of my work. Many parents are busy giving their children everything except a sense of self-esteem and self-worth."
"When you believe in what you do and have a passion about what you do, it is easy. It's like climbing a beautiful mountain—it's difficult getting there, but it's beautiful once you're there."
Future educator Marva Deloise Nettles was born on August 31, 1936 in Monroeville, Alabama. Raised in Atmore in the heart of the segregated South, Collins was more than familiar with the educational inadequacies associated with black schools. She was also well aware of the mediocre access African-American students had to the resources that were readily available to white students. Libraries were for whites only, and many black schools lacked sufficient books or even indoor plumbing.
But Collins' father Alex Nettles, a successful businessman, had high standards for Marva and her younger sister—and even higher expectations of them in the classroom. "We were expected to be excellent," Collins once recalled. "We didn't have a choice."
Marva went to Clark College in Atlanta, Georgia, where she studied secretarial skills. After two years of teaching in her home state, she moved north to Chicago, where she eventually met a young draftsman named Clarence Collins. The couple later married and had two children, Patrick and Cynthia.
In Chicago, Collins eventually found steady work as a substitute teacher. She worked as a substitute for nearly 14 years, and what she saw as both an educator and a parent of two small children who were attending high-end private schools appalled her. So, with $5,000 she'd withdrawn from her retirement, Collins opened the Westside Preparatory School in the second floor of her home in the Chicago neighborhood of Garfield Park.
It was a modest opening; coupled with her own two kids, she had just six students. Yet Collins made it clear that her classroom was available to any child who'd been failed by the bigger school systems, especially those who'd been diagnosed with impossible-to-overcome learning disabilities.
"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," Collins told Ebony magazine. "Parents, particularly black parents, have to be willing to make sacrifices to make sure their children are educated properly." The results from Collins' debut year were hard to ignore, with every child scoring significantly higher than they had previously.
The Collins Method, as it came to be known, centered on phonics, math, reading, English and the classics. Homer, Plato, Geoffrey Chaucer and Leo Tolstoy were all part of the reading list. "People ask me 'How do you get the children to memorize The Canterbury Tales in Old English?'" Collins said. "I say, 'It never dawned on me that they couldn't learn it.' Kids don't fail.
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