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Collins, Marva

Marva Collins

1936—

Educator

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 sixteen years, Collins decided to 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 who did not challenge their students to excel.

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 teacher and student. By offering 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. Collins's methods spread to other schools, some of which took on her name, and she has gone on to disseminate her unique ideas about education all over the world through lectures, workshops, books and a variety of other materials available through her consulting company, Marva Collins Seminars, Inc.

Developed Confidence, Responsibility in Childhood

Marva Collins was born Marva Deloise 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 Marva and her younger sister, Cynthia. By challenging Marva 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." At a young age 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.

Established Westside Preparatory 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's 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 came with such backing. 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 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 more than two hundred students.

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 in an interview with Morley Safer on the popular television program 60 Minutes. In 1981 CBS presented a Hallmark Hall of Fame special entitled The Marva Collins Story, starring Cicely Tyson.

Turned Down Government Posts

Late in 1980 Collins was considered for the post of secretary of education by 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 bureaucratic grind of Washington. The Chicago school board and the Los Angeles County school system also offered her positions. Again, she declined.

At a Glance …

Born Marva Deloise Nettles, August 31, 1936, in Monroeville, AL; daughter of Alex L. (in business) and Bessie Maye (Knight) Nettles; married Clarence Collins (a draftsman), September 2, 1960; children: Eric Tremayne, Patrick, Cynthia. Religion: Baptist. Education: Clark College, BA, 1957; graduate studies at Chicago Teachers College and Columbia University, 1965-67.

Career: Public school teacher in Monroeville, AL, 1957-59, and in Chicago, IL, 1960-75; Mount Sinai Hospital, Chicago, IL, medical secretary, 1959-61; Westside Preparatory School, Chicago, founder and director, 1975-90; founder and president, Marva Collins Seminars, Inc., 1976—. Lecturer and workshop leader, mid-1980s—. Appeared on television programs, including 60 Minutes, Good Morning America, and the Phil Donahue Show.

Memberships: President's Commission on White House Fellowships; National Advisory Board on Private Education.

Awards: Fred Hampton Image Award, Fred Hampton Foundation, and Watson Washburne Award, Reading Reform Foundation, both 1979; West Garfield Image Award, educator of the year awards from Phi Delta Kappa and Chicago Urban League, United Negro College Fund award, Sears Week of the Child Award, and Sojourner Truth Award, all 1980; Jefferson Award, American Institute for Public Service, 1981; Legendary Woman of the World, City of Birmingham, AL, 1982; National Humanities Medal, National Endowment for the Humanities, 2004. Received numerous honorary degrees from such institutions as Howard University, Dartmouth University, and Washington University.

Addresses: Office—Marva Collins Seminars, Inc., PO Box 6598, Hilton Head Island, SC 29938.

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 clas- sics as Aesop's Fables and works by William Shakespeare and Geoffrey Chaucer. Each day students wrote papers and memorized a quotation of their choice. In addition, they were expected to read a new book every two weeks and to report on it.

Collins guided all of this activity with a strong dose of love and personal concern for each student. Any child who had to be disciplined was made to understand that it is the behavior, not the child himself, that was being criticized. In an interview in Instructor magazine, Collins pointed out that "teacher attitude is very important," and that she believed "children should be given a lot of my time."

Answered Criticism with Classroom Success

In 1982, however, just as she was receiving mountains of positive publicity, Collins was also 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 service agency and that she had no idea the money had originated in Washington, DC

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, represents one of Collins's success stories. Ross enrolled in 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 supported Collins's work. She received donations from many individuals, most notably the 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, which she began doing through seminars in the mid-1980s.

Shortly before her fiftieth 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."

Closed School, Focused on Teacher Training

In 1990 one of the educators who had attended a Collins seminar founded a school in Cincinnati, Ohio, based on Collins's methods. About that time, Collins handed the day-to-day leadership of the Chicago school over to her daughter, Cynthia Collins—one of the school's first graduates—who became headmistress of Westside Preparatory. This allowed Collins to concentrate on spreading her message to teachers and school administrators across the globe, and eventually a large percentage of her work was being done abroad. The television program 60 Minutes visited Westside again in 1996, documenting the accomplishments of a girl who had been labeled as borderline retarded before arriving at the school; the girl went on to graduate from college summa cum laude. A third Marva Collins school was launched in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1997, and another was operating in Florida by this time. In 2004 Collins was honored by the National Endowment for the Humanities with a National Humanities Medal for her lifetime of achievements.

After a few years, however, Collins began questioning the use of her name on schools that were not under her supervision and control. In 2004 she demanded that the Milwaukee outpost, the Marva Collins Preparatory School of Wisconsin, stop using her name. The school remained in operation as of 2008, but under the name Milwaukee College Preparatory School. The following year she announced that she had no relationship with the Cincinnati school that bore her name, and wanted them to cease using her name. As of 2008 the Cincinnati school was fighting to retain the name, and the matter was being contested in court. Meanwhile, Collins had moved her base of operations to Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, from where she maintained a busy schedule of speaking engagements, workshops, and other consulting activities. At the end of the 2007-08 school year, Collins stunned parents by announcing the closing of the Westside Preparatory School in Chicago (which was now actually located on the South Side), citing financial issues as the reason. While parents mourned the demise of their beloved school, Collins's legacy remained alive and well through the work of hundreds of educators and students whose lives she had touched.

Selected writings

Books

(With Civia Tamarkin) Marva Collins' Way, J.P. Tarcher, 1982.

Ordinary Children, Extraordinary Teachers, Hampton Roads, 1992.

Sources

Periodicals

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; December 1996, p. 122.

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; June 23, 2008, p. 14.

Life, spring 1990.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, December 12, 1982.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, December 3, 2004.

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.

Online

"Eight Who Make a Difference: The National Endowment for the Humanities Medalists 2004," National Endowment for the Humanities, January/February 2005, http://www.neh.gov/news/humanities/2005-01/medals.html (accessed November 15, 2008).

"Illinois Hall of Fame: Marva Collins," Illinois State Society, December 23, 2006, http://illinoisstatesoceity.typepad.com/my_weblog/2006/12/illinois_hall_o_18.html (accessed November 15, 2008).

"Marva N. Collins Biography," Marva Collins Seminars, Inc., 2008, http://www.marvacollins.com/biography.html (accessed November 15, 2008).

Other

"Marva Collins School to Close," ABC7 Chicago, June 5, 2008, http://abclocal.go.com/wls/story?id=6188122&section=news/local (accessed November 15, 2008).

"Wisdom Watch: Famed Educator Marva Collins," Tell Me More, National Public Radio, September 5, 2007, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=14178874 (accessed November 15, 2008).

—Debra G. Darnell and Bob Jacobson

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Collins, Marva 1936–

Marva Collins 1936

Educator

At a Glance

Left Teaching to Start Her Own School

The Media Focus on Collins

Criticism and Commendations

Selected writings

Sources

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 teachers 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.

Marva Collins was born Marva Deloise 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 Marva 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 stores inventory, kept track of invoices, and deposited the stores 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.

At a Glance

Born Marva Deloise Nettles, August 31, 1936, in Monroeville, AL; daughter of Alex L. (in business) and Bessie Maye (Knight) Nettles; married Clarence Collins (a draftsman), September 2,1960; children: Eric Tremayne, Patrick, Cynthia. Education: Clark College, B.A., 1957; graduate studies at Chicago Teachers College and Columbia University, 1965-67. Religion: Baptist.

Public school teacher in Monroeville, AL, 1957-59, and in Chicago, IL, 1960-75; Mount Sinai Hospital, Chicago, IL, medical secretary, 1959-61; Westside Preparatory School, Chicago, founder and director, 1975. Conductor of workshops in the United States and Europe. Appeared on television programs, including 60 Minutes, Good Morning America, and the Phil Donahue Show. Member of Presidents Commission on White House Fellowships, 1981, and National Advisory Board on Private Education; council member of National Institute of Health; consultant to National Department of Children, Youth, and Family Services; director of Chicago Right to Read Program. Sunday school teacher, Morning Star Baptist Church, 1978-79.

Awards: Fred Hampton Image Award, Fred Hampton Foundation, and Watson Washburne Award, Reading Reform Foundation, both 1979; West Garfield Image Award, educator of the year awards from Phi Delta Kappa and Chicago Urban League, United Negro College Fund award, Sears Week of the Child Award, and Sojourner Truth Award, all 1980; honorary degrees from Howard University, Dartmouth University, Amherst College, and Washington University; Jefferson Award, American Institute for Public Service, 1981; named a Legendary Woman of the World by the city of Birmingham, AL, 1982.

Addresses: Office Westside Preparatory School, 4146 Chicago Avenue, Chicago, IL 60651.

Collins attended Clark College in Atlanta, Georgia. After graduating in 1957 with a bachelors 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 Chicagos inner-city schools because she missed helping youngsters discover the joy of learning. Working against a tide of indifferent teachers who, in Collinss 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 Chicagos poorest neighborhoods, the school was eventually moved to its own building near Collinss 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.

Collinss method of teaching, spelled out in her 1982 book Marva Collins Way, provides students with a nurturing atmosphere in which they learn the basicsreading, 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 Aesops 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.

Criticism and Commendations

In 1982, however, Collins was assailed by criticism from several fronts. Charges against her ranged from accepting federal fundsshe had always adamantly claimed that she would notto 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 Westsides 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: Im 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 Westsides 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 Collinss work. She received donations from many individuals, most notably rock star Prince, who became cofounder and honorary chairman of Collinss 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 isnt important. Its what the children learn thats 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.

Selected writings

(With Civia Tamarkin) Marva Collins Way, J.P. Tarcher, 1982.

Sources

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.

Harpers 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.

Debra G. Darnell

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Collins, Marva 1936–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 23 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Collins, Marva 1936–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/collins-marva-1936

"Collins, Marva 1936–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved October 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/collins-marva-1936

Marva Collins

Marva Collins

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

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. □

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Collins, Marva

Marva Collins

Born: August 31, 1936
Monroeville, Alabama

African American teacher

Schoolteacher Marva Collins founded Chicago's Westside Preparatory School in 1975. The success of the school and her teaching methods brought her media attention and inspired a made-for-TV film.

Influenced by father

Collins was born Marva Delores Nettles on August 31, 1936, in Monroeville, Alabama. She 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, owned a general store and later purchased a ranch and a funeral home. He was very attentive and supportive to Marva and her younger sister, Cynthia. By challenging Marva to use her mind, he gave her a strong sense of pride and self-esteem.

Marva attended Clark College in Atlanta, Georgia. After graduating in 1957 with a degree in secretarial sciences, she returned to Alabama to teach typing, bookkeeping, and business law at Monroe County Training School. Marva never intended to be a teacher, however, so she left the profession in 1959 to take a position as a medical secretary at Mount Sinai Hospital in Chicago, Illinois. While in the city she met Clarence Collins, a draftsman (one who draws plans and sketches) whom she married in September 1960.

Starts her own school

In 1961 Marva Collins returned to teaching in Chicago schools, because she missed helping youngsters discover the joy of learning. She became annoyed with the many other teachers who did not share her enthusiasm for the job. With her pension money and the support of her husband, Collins opened the Westside Preparatory School in the basement of Daniel Hale Williams University. She welcomed students who had been rejected by other schools and were labeled "unteachable." She planned to give them the time and attention they needed.

Collins decided not to accept funds from the federal government because she did not want to follow all the regulations that came with such backing. She soon moved the school into the second floor of her home, which she and her husband remodeled to handle approximately twenty children ranging in age from four to fourteen years old. The school was eventually moved to its own building near Collins's home, and enrollment increased to over two hundred students. By offering a great deal of individual attention, strict discipline (enforcing obedience and order), as well as focusing on reading, math, and language skills, Collins was able to raise the test scores of her students, many of whom went on to college and did well. "It takes an investment of time to help your children mature and develop successfully," declared Collins in Ebony.

Media attention and criticism

Collins started attracting attention in 1977 after a newspaper article on her and her school was printed. Several national publications picked up the story, and she was featured on the television program 60 Minutes. A made-for-TV movie entitled The Marva Collins Story, starring Cicely Tyson, aired on the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) in 1981. In 1980 newly elected President Ronald Reagan (1911) considered Collins for the post of secretary of education. Preferring to continue teaching and running her school, Collins announced that she would not accept the position if it were offered to her. She also turned down positions with the Chicago and Los Angeles County school systems. In 1982 she published a book explaining her method of teaching, Marva Collins' Way.

In 1982 critics charged that she had broken her vow not to accept federal funds and that she had exaggerated her students' test scores. An investigation revealed that Collins received sixty-nine thousand dollars through the federal Comprehensive Employment and Training Act. Collins claimed that the money had come to her through a social services agency, and that she had no idea it had originally come from Washington, D.C. On the issue of Collins's success as a teacher, many parents of Westside students rallied in her support, as did Morley Safer of 60 Minutes, who was quoted in Newsweek as saying, "I'm convinced that Marva Collins is one hell of a teacher." Many studies of students taught by Collins's methods showed dramatic improvement in their test scores and success in later life.

Collins received donations from many individuals, including rock star Prince, who became cofounder and honorary chairman of Collins's National Teacher Training Institute. Collins has received numerous awards for her work, and has taught her methods to over one-hundred thousand teachers, school administrators, and business people. She lives in Hilton Head, South Carolina, and is a popular public speaker. There are now five schools using her teaching methods: three in Chicago; one in Cincinnati, Ohio; and one in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

For More Information

American Spectator (April 1983).

Black Enterprise (June 1982).

Collins, Marva. Ordinary Children, Extraordinary Teachers. Norfolk, VA: Hampton Roads Publishing Company, 1992.

Collins, Marva, and Civia Tamarkin. Marva Collins' Way. Los Angeles: J. P. Tarcher, 1990.

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