Marva Collins, a former substitute teacher whose success at educating poor black students in a private school she founded made her a candidate for secretary of education and the subject of a television movie, died on Wednesday in a hospice near her home in South Carolina. She was 78.
Her death was confirmed by Hospice Care of the Lowcountry in Bluffton, S.C.
After working as a substitute teacher for 14 years in Chicago public schools, Ms. Collins cashed in her $5,000 in pension savings and opened Westside Preparatory School in 1975. The school originally operated in the basement of a local college and then, to be free of red tape (the same reason she said she had refused federal funds), in the second floor of her home.
She began with four students, including her daughter, charging $80 a month in tuition. Enrollment at the school, on Chicago’s South Side, grew to more than 200, in classes from prekindergarten through eighth grade. It remained in operation for more than 30 years.
Ms. Collins set high academic standards, emphasized discipline and promoted a nurturing environment. She taught phonics, the Socratic method and the classics and, she insisted, never expected her students to fail.
“Kids don’t fail,” she once said. “Teachers fail, school systems fail. The people who teach children that they are failures — they are the problem.”
At Westside Prep, she said in 2004 when she was awarded the National Humanities Medal, “there are no dropouts, no substitute teachers, and when teachers are absent, the students teach themselves.”
“We’re an anomaly in a world of negatives,” she added. “Our children are self-motivated, self-generating, self-propelled.”
An article about the school in 1977 in The Chicago Sun-Times attracted national attention, an interview on “60 Minutes” and the interest of filmmakers, who went on to produce “The Marva Collins Story,” a 1981 television movie on CBS with Cicely Tyson playing Ms. Collins and Morgan Freeman as her husband. She even appeared briefly in a video for Prince’s song “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World.”
As her stature as an educator grew, she began to train other teachers from around the country and published several books, including“ ‘Ordinary’ Children, Extraordinary Teachers” and “Marva Collins’ Way,” written with Civia Tamarkin. Speaking engagements followed.
In 1980, President-elect Ronald Reagan was said to be leaning toward choosing Ms. Collins for secretary of education, but she said she would reject the job if it were offered. By that time she had already turned down offers to run the public school systems in Chicago and Los Angeles.
Marva Delores Knight was born in Monroeville, Ala., on Aug. 31, 1936. Her father, Henry, was a merchant, cattleman and undertaker. Her mother was the former Bessie Nettles.
Raised in Atmore, near Mobile, in the segregated South, she graduated from Clark College in Atlanta, now Clark Atlanta University, and taught in Alabama schools before moving to Chicago. There she worked as a medical secretary before becoming a substitute public-school teacher.
She married Clarence Collins, who died in 1995. They had three children, two of whom, Eric and Patrick, survive her, as does her mother, Bessie Mae Johnson; a sister, Cynthia Sutton; and her second husband, George R. Franklin.
In 1982, Ms. Collins was stung by accusations that she was not certified as a teacher and that she had overstated her record of success, but parents of the children in her school rallied to her defense. Her supporters said that as a substitute teacher she had not needed formal certification; others said their children had shown great progress after enrolling in the school.
“I’ve never said I’m a superteacher, a miracle worker, all those names they gave me,” she told The New York Times that year. “It’s unfair to expect me to live up to it. I’m just a teacher.”
Ms. Collins later turned over the operation of Westside Prep to her daughter, Cynthia. It closed in 2008, with annual tuition at $5,500 and enrollment dwindling.
Ms. Collins moved to Hilton Head, S.C., where she organized programs to train teachers and administrators.
She insisted that she never craved awards or publicity. All she wanted, she told The Island Packet, the local newspaper, in 2007, was “to be able to say I got an A-plus on the assignment God gave me.”
Marva Delores Collins (née Knight; August 31, 1936 – June 24, 2015) was an American educator who in 1975 started Westside Preparatory School in the impoverished Garfield Park neighborhood of Chicago. She ran the school for more than 30 years until it closed in 2008 due to lack of sufficient enrollment and funding. Due to the success of her teaching methods, President Ronald Reagan wanted to nominate Collins to the position of Secretary of Education.
Marva Delores Knight was born in Monroeville, Alabama, to father, Henry Collins, a merchant, cattleman and undertaker, and to mother, Bessie Collins (née Nettles). She grew up in Atmore, Alabama, a small town near Mobile, Alabama, during the time of segregation in the American South. She graduated from Clark College (now known as Clark Atlanta University) in Atlanta, Georgia.
Collins was known for applying classical education, in particular the Socratic method, modified for use in primary schools, successfully with impoverished students, many of whom had been wrongly labeled as learning disabled by public schools. She once wrote, "I have discovered few learning disabled students in my three decades of teaching. I have, however, discovered many, many victims of teaching inabilities." She wrote a number of manuals, books and motivational tracts describing her history and methods. She was most widely publicized in the 1981 biographical TV movie, The Marva Collins Story, starring Cicely Tyson and Morgan Freeman.
Collins taught school for two years in Alabama, then moved to Chicago, where she taught in public schools for fourteen years. In 1975 she started Westside Preparatory School, which became an educational and commercial success. In 1996 she began supervising three Chicago public schools that had been placed on probation. In 2004 she received a National Humanities Medal, among many awards for her teaching and efforts at school reform.
Comparison to Chicago public schools
Collins created her low-cost private school specifically for the purpose of teaching low income African American children whom the Chicago public school system had labeled as being "learning disabled." One article about Collins' school stated,"Working with students having the worst of backgrounds, those who were working far below grade level, and even those who had been labeled as 'unteachable', Marva was able to overcome the obstacles. News of third grade students reading at ninth grade level, four-year-olds learning to read in only a few months, outstanding test scores, disappearance of behavioral problems, second-graders studying Shakespeare, and other incredible reports, astounded the public."
During the 2006–07 school year, Collins' school charged $5,500 for tuition, and parents said the school did a much better job than the Chicago public school system, which budgeted $11,300 per student. The authorities complained that this was not enough.
Collins was married to Clarence Collins. She had two sons and a daughter. She died June 24, 2015 in Beaufort County, South Carolina, aged 78, while in hospice care.
Works and publications
- Collins, Marva, Bert Kruger Smith, and Charlene Warren. A Conversation with Marva Collins: A Different School. From The Human Condition. Austin, Tex: Hogg Foundation for Mental Health, the University of Texas, 1982. OCLC 8257640
- Collins, Marva, and Civia Tamarkin. Marva Collins' Way. New York: Putnam, 1990. Foreword by Alex Haley. 2nd ed. ISBN 978-0-874-77572-3 OCLC 32523785
- Collins, Marva. Ordinary Children, Extraordinary Teachers. Norfolk, VA: Hampton Roads Pub. Co, 1992. ISBN 978-1-878-90141-5 OCLC 26790433
- Collins, Marva. Values: Lighting the Candle of Excellence: A Practical Guide for the Family. Los Angeles, CA: Dove Books, 1996. ISBN 978-0-787-11040-6 OCLC 35896951
- CBS News. Marva. 60 Minutes. New York: Carousel Films, 1979. OCLC 19834079
- Dave Bell Associates. Success! The Marva Collins Approach. Wilmette, Ill: Television Licensing Center, 1984. OCLC 11311358
- Collins, Marva. Too Good to Be True? 60 Minutes. New York: CBS Video, 1995. OCLC 33502110 - follow up to original 60 Minutes segment.
- Robbins, Anthony, Marva Collins, and Peter Lynch. Anthony Robbins' Powertalk! The Power of Life Metaphors. San Diego, CA: Anthony Robbins, 2004. OCLC 65197212
- Holzgang, Conrad, Clifford Campion, Peter Levin, Cicely Tyson, and Morgan Freeman. The Marva Collins story. Burbank, CA: Warner Home Video, 2008. ISBN 978-1-419-85861-1 OCLC 185036842
- 1981: Jefferson Awards for Public Service - Award for Greatest Public Service Benefiting the Disadvantaged
- 2004: National Endowment for the Humanities - National Humanities Medalist
- Alpha Kappa Alpha - Honorary member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority