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.
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 Henry Knight, 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 eventually had three children, Eric, Patrick and Cynthia.
Opens Her Own School
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 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 So, with $5,000 she'd withdrawn from her retirement, Collins opened the Westside Preparatory School in the second floor of her home in the Chicago neighborhood of Garfield Park.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 with just a few 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
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. Teachers fail, school systems fail. The people who teach children that they are failures, they are the problem."
Not surprisingly, Marva Collins and her school became a national story. Time and Newsweek came calling, as did 60 Minutes and Good Morning America. In 1982, her life and the founding of the school were turned into a television movie that starred Cicely Tyson and Morgan Freeman.
As it grew, Collins moved her school out of her home and to a new location on Chicago's South Side. In addition, other schools bearing her name have opened in Ohio and Florida. Collins' students are now doctors, lawyers and educators.
By the mid-1990s, Marva Collins had become a valued speaker, earning hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for her appearances, much of it getting redirected to her school. Collins, who has authored several books, has also been celebrated with awards such as the Jefferson Award; the Humanitarian Award for Excellence; as well as honorary doctorates from institutions like Amherst, Dartmouth and Notre Dame. In 2004, President Bush honored her with the National Humanities Medal.
Sadly, in 2008, due to a lack of resources and community support, Westside Preparatory School closed its doors, as enrollment had dropped sharply in recent years. But with thousands of her students placed in jobs and attending colleges around the country, Collins' impact on the American school system, and the lives she helped turn around, continues.
Marva Collins died of natural causes on June 24, 2015 in South Carolina. She was 78 years old.
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